The Color of Toxic Debris

Well before Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, New Orleans was already struggling with a wide range of environmental-justice challenges. People of color tended to be most vulnerable to a range of environmental assaults, from flood waters to toxic debris. Beyond being exposed to hurricanes, residing along the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor has increased the vulnerability of local residents to environmental-health threats. The corridor has often been dubbed "Cancer Alley," and in 2008, Louisiana replaced Mississippi as the unhealthiest U.S. state, according to the annual ranking released by the foundation, American Public Health Association, and the Partnership for Prevention advocacy group.

Katrina was among the costliest, deadliest, and most devastating disasters in U.S. history. While public attention has focused on the politics of rebuilding the Gulf Coast, a lesser known crisis of debris lingers on. A September 2005 Business Week commentary described the handling of the untold tons of "lethal goop" left over from hurricane damage as the "mother of all toxic cleanups."

Hurricane Katrina left debris across a 90,000-square-mile disaster area in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. In comparison, the attacks of September 11, 2001, left a 16-acre tract of debris in New York City. According to the Congressional Research Service, Katrina generated more than 100 million cubic yards of debris, compared to the 2.8 million cubic yards generated after the terrorist attacks on New York City.

Weeks after Katrina struck, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) allowed New Orleans to open the 200-acre Old Gentilly Landfill to dump the storm's leftovers. The unlined dump was a well-documented health hazard that federal regulators had ordered closed in the 1980s. But by December 2005, the dump was open again, and every day, more than 2,000 truckloads of hurricane debris entered the landfill located at 10200 Almonaster Ave. in mostly African American east New Orleans.

In April 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the LDEQ issued permits for yet another landfill in New Orleans East on Chef Menteur Highway. This new landfill was about four miles west of the Old Gentilly Landfill in a mostly African American and Vietnamese community. After intense political pressure, in July 2006, Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the controversial landfill on Chef Menteur Highway closed. Hundreds of trucks each day dump their loads into New Orleans' largest and busiest landfill, the Old Gentilly Landfill, according to PBS reporter Betty Ann Bowser. And New Orleans East continues to be the city's dumping grounds -- with more than 23 illegal dumps.

Living On Poisoned Land

Using black neighborhoods as toxic dumping grounds is an old story in New Orleans. After Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, debris was trucked to the Agriculture Street Landfill. Two mostly black New Orleans subdivisions, Gordon Plaza and Press Park, and the Moton Elementary School were subsequently built on a portion of the old landfill. The soil was so toxic that in 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Agriculture Street Landfill a Superfund site, indicating a serious health hazard in need of costly remediation. A $20 million government cleanup was completed in 2001, even though buying out residents at fair market value would have cost only $14 million.

In 1993, challenging the EPA's cleanup plans, the Concerned Citizens of Agriculture Street Landfill filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of New Orleans for damages and cost of relocation. The case was still pending when Hurricane Katrina struck. In January 2006, Civil District Court Judge Nadine Ramsey ruled in favor of the residents, declaring the neighborhood "unreasonably dangerous" and "uninhabitable." Judge Ramsey ordered the Housing Authority of New Orleans, the city, and the insurers to pay fair-market value of residents' homes, plus $4,000 to $50,000 for emotional distress. The ruling was appealed, and in January 2008, after nearly 15 years of litigation, the Louisiana Supreme Court largely upheld Judge Ramsey's ruling but cut the emotional-distress awards in half.

Dirt Poor

In March 2006, seven months after Katrina slammed ashore, organizers of "A Safe Way Back Home" initiative, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, and the United Steel Workers, undertook a proactive pilot neighborhood-cleanup project -- the first of its kind in New Orleans. Independent tests in more than 200 sites in the city found elevated lead and arsenic levels exceeding federal safety standards. The pilot project spurred similar clean-up projects in more than two-dozen New Orleans neighborhoods.

State and federal officials labeled the voluntary cleanup efforts as "scaremongering" and "completely unnecessary." Ironically, although the EPA refused to promote or support neighborhood cleanups after the storm, it gave the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice the 2008 Environmental Justice Achievement Award for "its work to help residents in New Orleans, Louisiana, address environmental contamination and return home after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005."

Although many government scientists insisted New Orleans' soil was safe, an April 2006 multi-agency taskforce press release distributed by the EPA raised serious doubt. Government officials cautioned residents to "keep children from playing in bare dirt." They also advised residents to "cover bare dirt with grass, bushes or 4-6 inches of lead-free wood chips, mulch, soil or sand."

Churchill Downs, the owner of New Orleans' Fair Grounds, felt the soil was not safe and ordered a $16 million cleanup for its thoroughbred horses. The owners hauled off soil tainted by Katrina's floodwaters and rebuilt a grandstand roof that had been ripped off by the storm's wind. On Thanksgiving Day 2006, horse racing returned to New Orleans. The horses got better treatment than many humans.

In March 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council soil sampling found nearly 25 percent of the 35 New Orleans playgrounds and schoolyards tested may be classified as arsenic "hot spots." These findings contradicted Washington's repeated assurances that all was well.

In August 2006, a year after the storm, the EPA gave New Orleans a clean bill of health. "The hurricane didn't cause any appreciable contamination that wasn't already there," said EPA toxicologist Jon Rauscher. But in June 2007, a Government Accountability Office report criticized the EPA's handling of contamination in post-Katrina New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The GAO found inadequate monitoring for asbestos around demolition and renovation sites. Additionally, the GAO investigation uncovered that key information released to the public about environmental contamination was neither timely nor adequate and in some cases, easily misinterpreted to the public's detriment.

Living and Dying in Toxic Trailers

Many of the residents displaced by Katrina were placed in temporary housing, including 120,000 travel trailers purchased by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for $2.6 billion. More than 140,000 families were housed in FEMA travel trailers and mobile homes across the Gulf Coast. The Sierra Club found unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 of 32 travel trailers it tested in 2006. Even though FEMA received numerous complaints about toxic trailers, the agency initially only tested one occupied trailer to determine the levels of formaldehyde in it. The monitored levels were 75 times higher than what the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health recommend for adult exposure in industrial workplaces.

FEMA deliberately neglected to investigate any reports of high levels of formaldehyde in trailers so as to bolster its litigation position just in case individuals harmed by FEMA's negligence decided to sue them. Residents continued to get sick while several government agencies, FEMA, the EPA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dragged their feet, failed to conduct a health study, or take appropriate actions to protect the health of the residents living in trailers. The CDC, traditionally a professional and independent agency, needed funding for its study from FEMA and approval from the Office of Management and Budget. CDC's testing began only in December 2007.

In August 2007, frustrated with government inaction, more than 500 hurricane survivors and evacuees in Louisiana filed legal action against the trailer manufacturers for exposing them to the toxic chemical formaldehyde. In December 2008, storm victims from Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama filed a class-action lawsuit (though ultimately denied class-action status) over the FEMA trailer fumes. In the meantime, FEMA is still spending $28 million annually to store travel trailers and mobile homes at five Mississippi sites while the agency determines whether they'll be reused or sold as scrap.

In February 2008, more than two years after residents of FEMA trailers first complained of breathing difficulties, nosebleeds, and persistent headaches (and after the EPA gave New Orleans a clean bill of health), CDC tests found that average levels of formaldehyde gas in 519 trailers and mobile homes tested in Louisiana and Mississippi were about five times normal levels in most modern homes. In some trailers, levels were nearly 40 times customary exposure levels -- levels that could have long-term negative health effects.

CDC tests showed an average formaldehyde level of 77 parts per billion, with a low of 3 parts per billion and a high of 590 parts per billion. The average level in new homes is 10 to 20 parts per billion. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and long-term exposure to levels of 77 parts per billion could have serious effects. Even this long-awaited CDC study was "marred by ... flaws," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. CDC scientists who conducted the study used an unusually high threshold of hazard to evaluate the formaldehyde in the trailers: Instead of 30 parts per billion, they used 300 parts per billion, 10 times greater than the long-term standard.

The usual CDC standard says that people exposed to as little as 30 parts of formaldehyde per billion parts of air for more than two weeks can suffer constricted airways, headaches, and rashes. Almost all of the trailers measured above that level. In November 2008, there were still 9,300 families in trailers and 1,600 in hotel rooms across the Gulf Coast.

A November 2008 study from the New York?based children's health fund, Legacy of Shame, found that children in a federally funded FEMA Baton Rouge trailer park have serious health problems. It found that 41 percent of children younger than 4 were diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, more than double the rate of children living in New York City homeless shelters; 55 percent of elementary-school-age children had a behavior or learning problem; 42 percent of children were diagnosed with allergic rhinitis, known as hay fever, and/or upper respiratory infection; and 24 percent had a cluster of allergies and upper respiratory and skin ailments.

Even before the storm, these were some of the nation's neediest children and represented some of the sickest of the estimated 30,000 children living in trailers and temporary housing in the region.

Unequal Flood Protection

The racially charged patterns of suffering after Katrina mirror the disparity in what the government is doing to mitigate damage from the next Katrina. The Army Corps of Engineers is working to fix 350 miles of levees and floodwalls (220 miles of which have already been repaired); build new flood gates and pump stations at the mouths of three outfall canals; and strengthen existing walls and levees at important points. By May 2008, the Army Corps had spent $4 billion of the $14 billion set aside by Congress to repair and upgrade the metropolitan area's levees by 2011. After spending more than $22 million on repairs, the 17th Street levee, the one that broke with catastrophic effect during Hurricane Katrina, leaked again in May 2008. Some outside experts say billions more could be needed and that some of the work already completed may need to be redone.

After spending billions of dollars on levee repairs, a disproportionately large swath of black New Orleans is still left vulnerable to future flooding. The vast New Orleans East area, which makes up about 60 percent of New Orleans land area and some 40 percent of the tax base before the storm, has had no real increase in levee protection.

Increased levee protection maps closely with the race of neighborhoods, with black neighborhoods such as the 9th Ward, Gentilly, and New Orleans East receiving little if any increased flood protection. These disparities, in turn, could lead insurers and investors to redline and think twice about supporting the rebuilding efforts in vulnerable black areas. For example, the mostly black Upper 9th Ward can expect to receive just 6 inches of increased flood protection compared to 5 and a half feet of increased flood protection in the city's mostly white and affluent Lakeview area.

The government response to environmental threats in post-Katrina New Orleans can best be described as a dismal failure. The "mother of all toxic cleanups" was all rhetoric. A racial divide still exists in the way government responds to toxic contamination, flooding, and public-health threats to blacks and Vietnamese residents. Not only were communities of color differentially affected by post-Katrina environmental threats, they still get different and unequal treatment from the government in planning for the future. Predominantly white communities have seen faster action and better results on all fronts. It is the responsibility of the government to protect all Katrina survivors, not just those who can afford lawyers and experts or those who can "vote with their feet" and exit contaminated and flood-prone neighborhoods.