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TOXIC GUMBO IN CANCER ALLEY

by Rita J. KingSpecial to CorpWatch
August 16th, 2006

Baton Rouge is connected to New Orleans by an industrial corridor known as “Cancer Alley,” a strip along the Mississippi dotted with chemical plants notorious for their emissions and the elevated incidence of cancers in neighboring communities.

During and after Katrina and Rita, five Superfund sites in the area flooded. Elsewhere in southern Louisiana, an estimated seven million gallons of oil seeped out of gas stations, offshore rigs and coastal refineries; sewers burst and flooded, sending a stew of fossil fuels and putrid waste across the landscape.

In St. Bernard Parish, home to multiple oil refineries and power plants, an estimated million gallons of oil saturated the parish post-Katrina from 44 spills. The worst was Murphy Oil’s Meraux refinery, a 100,000 barrel a day facility. Katrina lifted and dislodged a 250,000 gallon above-ground tank, sending an oily, muddy slick through the parish.

Soil samples from St. Bernard Parish taken by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), several universities and other organizations indicated the presence of arsenic, heavy metals, pesticides, diesel, benzene and other toxic compounds. Wilma Subra, a technical analyst who reviewed the results for LABB, found benzene and toxic metals such as arsenic and chromium in 10 of 14 samples taken.

At FEMA’s request the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took soil samples in the area, particularly in and around at temporary housing areas. In some of the EPA samples, a melange of substances and chemicals-arsenic, benzene, the pesticide Dieldrin, diesel, organic chemicals and thallium, used in pesticides-was discovered in volumes exceeding state safety standards.

The EPA website reveals that exposure to each of the substances in such doses increases an individual’s lifetime risk of getting cancer — but at rates which “the EPA has found acceptable in other contexts.”

Anne Rolfes, executive director of LABB, told CorpWatch, “The first step in solving any problem is admitting that you have one, but the government is pretending there’s no problem.” The Bucket Brigade has been working since 2000 to help residents in the area collect soil and air samples to make sure local refineries and chemical plants adhere to emissions limits.

What had been an unhealthy place to live became far worse immediately after the hurricane. A Wackenhut security guard told CorpWatch that he lived in St. Bernard Parish for seven months post-Katrina and that he was sick for four months with flu-like symptoms, fevers, vomiting and coughing. It wasn’t. until he left for Colorado at the end of his assignment that he began to recover. He claimed nearly all of the other 1,500 people in the contractor’s temporary camp were also sickened.

“People need information to make decisions about their lives,” said Rolfes. She says the EPA has failed to consolidate data in a user-friendly format, and she intends for the Bucket Brigade to step into the breach. She compared the EPA’s conclusion that St Bernard parish is safe enough considering the circumstances, to its post 9/11 declaration that the air quality in downtown Manhattan was safe.

Existing environmental regulations that might have prevented spills like those in St. Bernard Parish simply were not enforced, according to Hugh Kaufman, an EPA senior policy analyst.

“The mayor said New Orleans will ‘breathe again.’ Yeah, they’ll breathe bacteria, viruses and volatizing toxic chemicals,” Kaufman told Newsweek. “There is no environmental assessment. I mean, you can’t even make a determination of the risk factor. But more important, we don’t know what to tell the public in terms of what their risk is when they come back. The public thinks it’s safe. It’s one of the more reckless and irresponsible government decisions made in the last decade Second only to [former EPA chief] Christie Todd Whitman after [the] World Trade towers came down [saying], ‘We’ve tested the air and it’s safe. So ya’ll come back.’ And now [some] of the people that came back are sick as dogs.”

The failure to regulate made what would have been a bad situation anyway much worse.

St. Bernard, a low-lying, flood-prone area, is also home to some of the poorer communities in southern Louisiana. The marshy delta soil was already overburdened with development driven by its proximity to the coastal shipping lanes. That development, according to Kaufman, has stressed the soil and compromised its natural capacity to disperse chemicals.

“Folks down there were living on borrowed time and, unfortunately, time ran out with Katrina,” Kaufman said.

One FEMA employee working in the area spoke with CorpWatch on the condition of anonymity. He said the agency has been firing workers for speaking on the record about the calamity.

“Poor people are getting screwed,” he said.

It will cost Murphy $70 million to clean up the six miles of coastline sullied by the Meraux accident, according to Mindy West, Murphy Oil spokesperson. The company has already paid $80 million in settlements with homeowners not involved in the suit, averaging $30,000 per home. Critics say it is far too little for the scope of the devastation and the havoc that destroyed homes — and health.

Some 3,500 families affected by the spill who have not accepted settlements from Murphy Oil, have filed a class-action lawsuit that is expected to drag on for years and cost the company hundreds of millions.  

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