Chalmette Then and Now(A)
Believe it or not, I was planning to write about Chalmette, Louisiana, in this space well before Hurricane Katrina. Recently described in the New York Times as “a mostly white, working-class community where two oil refineries, a natural-gas processing plant and some fisheries make up most of the local economy,” most of Chalmette’s 68,000 residents are now “scattered to who knows where.”
I had been trying to arrange a visit with the managers of Chalmette Refining LLC, a joint venture between ExxonMobil and the state oil company of Venezuela. Trillium and a number of religious shareholders affiliated with the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility had been corresponding with the refinery’s managers since January over issues raised in a community lawsuit arising from the plant’s high toxic air emissions. Unsatisfied by the response to our questions, we finally requested a face-to-face meeting.
Now it’s anyone’s guess when Chalmette will return to “normal.” (Normal, for the refinery, was being the #3 carcinogen emitter in the U.S., #5 in the release of developmental toxins, and #2 in the releases of reproductive toxins.) The refinery’s managers are eager to restart operations, which they describe as contributing to the disrupted national energy supply, but which one activist read as proof that “they don’t give a DAMN about people – they will crank it up and run as quickly as possible, especially without others around to complain or report.” Now the Bush Administration is loosening Clean Air Act regulations to speed the Gulf’s economic recovery.
Frighteningly toxic floodwaters have displaced and dispersed thousands of tons of heavy metals, hydrocarbons and other industrial waste in addition to sewage, bacterial contaminants and decaying bodies. After the pumping, the waters will eventually make their way to the Gulf of Mexico. Some “dead zones” have already been identified.
The extraordinary concentration of oil and petrochemical facilities makes this region one of the worst places in the world for flooding. Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency, architect of the Superfund legislation, and a renowned whistleblower, called the situation “infinitely worse than Love Canal” and characterized New Orleans itself as the “largest Superfund site in U.S. history.” “This is the worst case,” he said.1 Why is it that we concentrate refineries like that in a perpetual hurricane zone anyway?
The verdict on all 140 chemical plants operating between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is not yet in. We do know that two hazardous waste facilities sustained flooding, and ruptured oil tanks may have dumped as much as 3.7 million barrels of crude into the Lower Mississippi River. Initial testing has revealed high levels of E. coli and lead. Government officials are avoiding characterizations of the waters as “toxic” (relying on “bacterial” or even “septic,” presumably preferred by focus groups), even as an advisory warns those still in the city to not even touch the water that is everywhere around them (good luck with that), and scrubbing them with bleach before they can reach for that first bottle of water.
On NPR, a Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality official carefully dodged the question of whether this disaster was on the scale of Love Canal and dismissed as unhelpful the observation that the oil and gas industry’s environmental agenda dominates Louisianan politics.
Wearing my shareholder hat, I can’t help but wonder if the petrochemical industry will be sued for wastewater cleanup. The linkage is well known between the political contributions of the oil and gas industry and the legislative agendas of their recipients. Maybe this time the contaminants lapping up against homes in the more prosperous zip codes will finally open a few eyes to the fact that we all live downstream eventually, not just the folks in Chalmette.