Finding a Safe Way Back Home: My Request to EPA Administrator Jackson

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By Dr. Beverly Wright

There is an emotional side of losing everything, losing your community, and then not knowing when you can go back home.

There are so many things that New Orleans residents lost after Hurricane Katrina. In my case it wasn’t just losing my house, it was losing all the pictures of my mom, who passed away in April 2005. I had a whole chronology of her life from when she was a little girl all the way till when she was 79. The whole memory is just wiped out.  These things can’t be undone.

But there are other legacies from Katrina that can be undone -- that could be fixed to make New Orleans a better and stronger place. For example, there’s still time to create a safe environmental legacy for our children. That is why I will be talking with the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today, and I will be giving her a letter signed by local and national organizations asking for her help.

Immediately following the flooding of New Orleans, I called for independent testing of the soil and sediment left from the storm, since I believe firmly in the right to return, but I wanted to make sure that it was safe for people to go back to their homes.  In November of 2005, I was quoted in an interview as saying: “I’m also worried that if a cleanup is done, it won’t meet the proper standards, and ten years from now we will end up with African Americans living on top of superfund sites.” Four years have passed, and I’m still worried.  

We did independent soil testing and air monitoring in New Orleans post-Katrina in partnership with the NRDC. We collected our own data to compare with the EPA’s data, to make certain we got the real results. Our testing revealed some problems. In particular, it showed that old lead contamination still exists in soil throughout the city. But it also revealed a surprise – arsenic.

The arsenic was a mystery, and new studies published by the NRDC, in collaboration with other scientists from Tulane, Dillard, and Xavier Universities, recently showed that the arsenic was new. It wasn’t in New Orleans before the storm. Fortunately the levels of arsenic have decreased since the storm in many neighborhoods, but I was concerned about the sites – especially the schools and playgrounds – where arsenic was still found.

The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice partnered with the United Steelworkers of America, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other groups to clean up New Orleans one street at a time. We toiled with volunteer labor, and I contributed the sweat of my own brow to these heroic efforts. But our work was only a demonstration of what could be done. Our volunteers could never hope to clean up all of the hot spots. Instead we put forth a vision of what could be done. We waited and hoped that the government would provide resources and manpower for a more comprehensive clean-up effort. But that never came.

So we remain in a serious situation with political, economic, as well as health ramifications.

One of the objectives of my center is to promote and convene meetings to include the concerns of people on the ground—people from New Orleans. This week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is in New Orleans to talk with us and to hear our concerns. She brought with her other forward-thinking new EPA senior officials, and I am looking forward to our dialogue. It is important that EPA – which had turned its back on New Orleans after Katrina – is re-engaged in our struggle for a safe future.

We are asking EPA for four things:
  1. Deploy a team of EPA scientists to do more comprehensive soil testing at playgrounds and schools in the previously flooded areas of New Orleans and make the results available to the public as soon as they are available;
  2. Help ensure that the State of Louisiana releases the $3.5 Million of recovery funding that was allocated in 2007 for Soil Assessment and Remediation in New Orleans so that contaminated schools and playgrounds, as well as highly-contaminated residential areas can be remediated;
  3. If sufficient recovery funds are not available, help to identify other sources of funding to address contaminated soil in New Orleans; and
  4. Develop, in consultation with local community stakeholders, a long-term plan to respond to environmental threats caused by future natural disasters.
There is something about New Orleans that is so wonderful and lively—the culture, the music.  African Americans history is deep in New Orleans, and many traditions have been washed away. It’s very sad. But I have hope. The way that the nation deals with New Orleans is symbolic of the way we will deal with the future impacts of global warming on cities and regions throughout our country and around the world. We must protect the most vulnerable communities, prepare for future climate disasters, and rebuild safer, healthier, and greener for the future.