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

Rising Up from a Toxic Legacy

Air Date: Week of

Anyone familiar with the stretch of Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans knows it as "Cancer Alley": a string of industries including petrochemical plants. The people who live along this alley are mostly poor and African-American, and many of them have suffered illnesses. Host Steve Curwood talks with the Sierra Club's Darryl Malek-Wiley about the area's toxic hotspots.


CURWOOD: One person who is also worried about the short and longterm clean up of New Orleans is Darryl Malek-Wiley. He's a thirty-year environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club in Louisiana.

Mr. Malek-Wiley coined the term “Cancer Alley” – the moniker he gave to a swath of hundreds of petrochemical and other industrial plants along the shore of the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. The population of this area is mostly poor and African American and over the years there have been disproportionate rates of environmental illness, ranging from cancers to miscarriages that have led to lawsuits and the abandonment of entire communities.

Mr. Malek-Wiley, thanks for joining me.

MALEK-WILEY: Hello Steve, how are you doing?

CURWOOD: Good. I wanted to ask you, based on what you know of the areas that were most highly contaminated before Hurricane Katrina, what are you most worried about now that the city’s been flooded?

MALEK-WILEY: Well, I’m worried about all the toxic chemicals that are in the water, and the impact of the flooding of the oil refineries in Chalmette. I’ve seen television footage of the oil tank that contaminated the community with this heavy oil. I’m concerned about all the gasoline stations underground and their impact popping up. I’m concerned of what’s in everybody’s garage and under their sink. You know, all those different chemicals are out there in who knows what levels in flood water cooking under a hot New Orleans sun. And we’re probably having chemical reactions that have never happened before in the history of the world.

CURWOOD: What about some of the specific areas that you were working with residents. I know, for example, there was a lot of controversy about the Agricultural Street neighborhood and the landfill there. It’s a former Superfund site. What do you think will be going on there?

MALEK-WILEY: I don’t know, there’s been no reports from that area. That area’s called Press Park and it was an environmental justice tragedy from the word “go.” They built a community of first-home buyers, it was a federal program that they allowed people who had not bought a home to buy a house in the area, mostly African American, on special low-interest loans. But they didn’t take into account the environmental impacts of building on top of a landfill. They also built an elementary school on top of the landfill.

So it’s been an ongoing environmental justice struggle around the Agriculture Street Landfill. What the people in the community wanted was to be relocated off of the site. The EPA came in with a quote “cleanup plan” which involved removing three feet of dirt out of people’s yards, putting down a geotech fabric, and then putting three feet of dirt back in. But we don’t know what’s happening now with the site underwater, and what type of chemicals are bubbling up and further contaminating those homes.

CURWOOD: On these sites, the question comes, if people are going to go back to New Orleans. What do you think? Should they be resettling these communities? Or is this an opportunity now to get relocated as the folks at Agricultural Street wanted to be?

MALEK-WILEY: I think it’s gotta be a case by case basis. For the folks at Agriculture Street, I think that that whole area should be bulldozed down and those folks given appropriate dollar-for-dollar houses in other parts of New Orleans or where they want to relocate.

CURWOOD: In a horrible tragedy like this there can be some silver linings. How do you see the people of New Orleans benefiting from all of this?

MALEK-WILEY: With New Orleans rebuilding, and with the Gulf of Mexico rebuilding, we have an opportunity to really step back and think. Since it’s going to be, from what I’m hearing in the media, months until we’re able to get back into New Orleans to do any kind of rebuilding, we should really be thinking about how we want our city to grow and develop.

How can we make it more environmental friendly? How can we make sure that when we rebuild homes in New Orleans they are able to stand hurricane-force winds? They’re more energy efficient? They’re built back in the neighborhoods that are such a strong component of New Orleans?

You know, people wouldn’t leave New Orleans because they didn’t want to leave their neighbors. And we want to make that strong neighborhood community rebuild, at the same time putting the people who were most impacted back to work building, rebuilding New Orleans in a very visionary new way. New Orleans should become the greenest sustainable city in the world.

CURWOOD: To what extent do you think your vision is moving forward? I mean, what’s going on right now with funds for rebuilding New Orleans?

MALEK-WILEY: Right. Well, right now it’s not moving forward in New Orleans. But I heard on one of the press conferences by Governor Blanco, I heard her say, this is sort of a rough quote, I want to make sure that Louisianains have the jobs to rebuild our state. So, you know, that’s part of the vision. The bigger vision of the green vision, that’s gonna take a while.

CURWOOD: Already the Congress has approved a $10 billion emergency measure for Louisiana, for the Gulf area, and it looks like another $40 billion is going to move forward. What’s your understanding of how those funds would be spent? And what do you think of those plans?

MALEK-WILEY: The concern I have is: will these funds make companies like Halliburton and Bechtel richer? Or will they rebuild the hope and community of the citizens of New Orleans and Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes? Will this be another transfer of American wealth to giant corporations? Or will it be to the communities, and the people in the communities that need the help?

CURWOOD: How would Halliburton be involved?

MALEK-WILEY: Well, Halliburton’s already gotten a contract to do cleanup on one of the U.S. Navy bases.

CURWOOD: Some people have said that the transportation of the evacuees from New Orleans to other communities may be part of the view of eventually gentrifying the city of New Orleans when it is rebuilt. What concerns do you have that New Orleans might be gentrified in a rebuilding process that would leave out the low-income folks that have been so much a part of the city for so long?

MALEK-WILEY: Yeah, I’ve heard that, you know, concern. It is a concern, but I think that New Orleans is a community-based, neighborhood-based society, and we had extended families throughout New Orleans. There’s been an effort, lots of effort, for people of lower income to buy houses and actually own land in New Orleans. So hopefully, that will continue, but we need to have some kind of program in place to make sure it doesn’t become a yuppie Disneyland.

CURWOOD: What are you most worried about at this point? I mean, what’s the worst-case scenario that you can foresee?

MALEK-WILEY: The worst-case scenario is we’d close the door to New Orleans and walk away and leave that wonderful cultural heart of America to rot. That’s worst-case scenario.

CURWOOD: Darryl Malek-Wiley is environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club in Louisiana. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

MALEK-WILEY: Thank you very much, Steve.

[MUSIC: Randy Newman “Louisiana 1927” from ‘Good Ole Boys’ (Reprise - 1998)]



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