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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmental Injustice

Air Date: Week of

New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Prior to Katrina, 28 percent of its residents lived below the poverty line. Host Steve Curwood talks with environmental justice attorney Monique Harden about how Katrina further exposed the fissure between the haves and the have-nots.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many of the African American faces that were caught on camera during the prolonged evacuation of New Orleans are among the more than a quarter of citizens of the city who live below the poverty line – and half of the poor are children.

Monique Harden is an attorney with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based legal group that has been battling the concentration of toxic facilities in or near communities of color. She joins me now from member station WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama. Monique, thanks for taking this time.

HARDEN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Give me a brief history as to how so many black people wound up in these areas.

HARDEN: Well, the evolution of Louisiana’s economic development has only been two things: either slave plantations or industrial plants. Those are the two primary ones in the state’s history. And at the time that industrial facilities began entering the state of Louisiana, because of its navigable waters and rich natural resources, the state began instituting economic policies that encouraged the location of these facilities in the state and the expansion of those facilities in the state into perpetuity, without any regard for the long-lasting consequences and effects of such industrial development.

The situation for African Americans in particular under this kind of economic development history in the state has been that as they founded communities, from 1790s on, they didn’t have political status. They were unincorporated communities. So that, as the state began inviting and luring more industrial development into the state, the decisions about where those facilities would locate were not made by African Americans who had settled communities. Added to this problem is the fact that, as individuals, African Americans were denied the right to vote until the 1960s in Louisiana.

So at no point during the advent and continuing expansion of industrial facilities in the state of Louisiana did African Americans have any say or political power to impact those decisions. So you see the state now where African American communities with long histories, going back hundreds of years, are located in very close, dangerously close, proximity to industrial facilities. In the case of New Orleans, as these companies decided to abandon and leave those facilities in the midst of African American neighborhoods, to this day, in the year 2005, we’re still dealing with the situation of all the toxic waste that has been left on these sites. Where, you know, homes are across the street, there are playgrounds, there are churches, small businesses.

CURWOOD: So, do you have any indication so far of the kind of toxins people are finding in the water in these neighborhoods? Or is it too soon to tell that?

HARDEN: Well, we can definitely anticipate the kind of toxins that would be in the water based on what we know was in the neighborhoods prior to Hurricane Katrina. You’ve got lead, arsenic, DDT and its metabolites, heptachlor. A number of cancer-causing, reproductive-damaging chemicals are in these neighborhoods in New Orleans that now have, chances are, been released through the flood waters and the impact of the hurricane.

CURWOOD: So, how safe could it be to resettle these neighborhoods if all these chemicals are being exposed in this process? The water dries up, the chemicals stay behind, right?

HARDEN: It’s going to require an extensive remediation process, and one that needs to be planned with the participation of people who have long been working on the environmental cleanup of their communities. Many of these people are now displaced. And I think a concerted effort needs to be made in reaching out to displaced residents of New Orleans and reconnecting them with their families and neighbors to be a part of the rebuilding of this city.

CURWOOD: To what extent do you think the city was adequately warned about this kind of disaster happening? And who would you hold accountable for not paying enough attention to these warnings?

HARDEN: I really hold the federal government responsible for this. What we know about the city of New Orleans is this: is that there’s been, for a number of years, efforts made to do a number of things with regards to the redistribution of royalties from oil and gas drilling off the coastline to restore the coastal area of Louisiana. I should say that without a coastal restoration plan in place, rebuilding the city of New Orleans becomes something that is in vain. You’re basically setting up the situation once again for another hurricane to have a devastating impact on the city because you don’t have a reinforced coastal area.

CURWOOD: Say more about that.

HARDEN: Well, there have been plans upon plans upon plans, with some levels of public participation in the process of developing plans, for coastal restoration. It’s just one example. And when those plans are presented to Congress for funding it’s denied. Just look back the last few months in the development of the energy bill and, you know, seeing the comments by the Department of Energy, by President Bush himself, by senators like Pete Domenici, castigating and rejecting adequate funding for coastal restoration. That’s one example of how the local officials really do not have the wherewithall to take care of the impacts of a hurricane because the coastal erosion is such a huge problem that needs federal attention, and which has not ever happened.

CURWOOD: Through the years, the federal government has declined to put the kind of infrastructure cash on the table for New Orleans, to have the place be safe to live in. In terms of all the toxins that are exposed there that would have to be removed, that would have to be remediated. I imagine the tab would be just huge – billions upon billions beyond the discussions I hear about rebuilding. How realistic do you think it is for people to be able to go back into the historic black neighborhoods of New Orleans and live safely, in terms of toxic exposure?

HARDEN: I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic that this is an opportunity for us to really transform, in a positive and progressive way, the lives of people in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast of the United States. Transform the lives in a way that undoes the systemic forms of racism in these areas, that could also be able to have ripple effects for the entire country. And let me just say that as we’re spending billions upon billions of dollars in the Bush administration’s efforts to rebuild Iraq, that if that’s possible then rebuilding the Gulf Coast of the United States and New Orleans, in particular, is definitely possible.

CURWOOD: I’ve been speaking with Monique Harden, an attorney with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based legal group. Monique, thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

HARDEN: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Sigur Ros “Saeglopur” from ‘Takk…’ (Geffen – 2005)]



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