Katrina: In Black and White and Green

Bill Walsh | September 13, 2005 | Policies

Attorneys Nathalie Walker and Monique Harden, founders of Advocates For Environmental Human Rights

Attorneys Nathalie Walker and Monique Harden, founders of Advocates For Environmental Human Rights

"What I really see happening is that people are not taking into consideration...the pre-hurricane conditions... the post-hurricane conditions...are intrinsically tied to the pre-hurricane conditions."[1]

Dr. Beverly Wright, New Orleans Native

Founder, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice

At the Healthy Building Network, we watched with concern as Hurricane Katrina battered the homes of our friends and colleagues in Louisiana. The foundation of our work - our commitment to environmental justice, a precautionary approach to chemical use, PVC plastic elimination - is grounded in their work to improve the quality of life in a place that was, even before Katrina hit, arguably the nation's most environmentally ravaged state.[2] Their stories are familiar to readers of these pages.

Last March, we profiled lawyers Nathalie Walker and Monique Harden of New Orleans, founders of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. They filed a petition asking the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to declare the combination of racial discrimination and degradation of the Louisiana environment a human rights abuse.[3] What seemed like a Quixotic pursuit just six months ago, today appears to be as prescient as the engineering studies predicting massive flooding of the New Orleans "soup bowl."

For Earth Day 2004, we introduced New Orleans' Habitat for Humanity Director Jim Pate and new homeowner Shylia Lewis as they completed construction of a virtually PVC-free Healthy Habitat home in the St. Roche district of New Orleans' 8th Ward[4]. We do not yet know the fate of the St. Roche neighborhood.

In February 2004, Wilma Subra of New Iberia, Louisiana, provided compelling data on human exposures to vinyl chloride emissions, data withheld from the US Green Building Council's PVC Task Group by the PVC industry.[5] Subra, a MacArthur "Genius Award" winning scientist, is now reviewing EPA data as it is released, mindful that in New York City after 9/11, the White House pressured the EPA to redraft reports and falsely assure the public that the affected area was safe.[6]

HBO's May 2003 broadcast of the documentary Blue Vinyl[7] introduced viewers to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Since 2003, the Brigade has documented the abuses of local oil refineries in Chalmette, Louisiana.[8] In the past week, national news broadcasts featured the plight of Chalmette. It is now coated in a thick, toxic petroleum residue, and deemed a total loss. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade has relocated to Baton Rouge and is hard at work again.

Our best information is that our friends and colleagues are out of harm's way, as are nationally recognized environmental justice leaders, Margie Eugene-Richard (2004 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner[9] and ABC News Person of the Week[10]) and Dr. Beverly Wright, whose groundbreaking research at Xavier University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice helped to relocate the residents of Norco, Louisiana, and to prevent construction of the nation's largest proposed PVC plant in Convent, Louisiana. The two African American communities are situated in Cancer Alley, the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.[11]

As we join the national effort to rebuild their communities, the Healthy Building Network is committed to countering the forces of environmental racism that literally added insult to the injury of our friends, colleagues, leaders, and elders. To focus this effort, HBN is organizing GreenRelief. GreenRelief will operate in service to organizations and initiatives that are committed to principles of environmental and social justice during the rebuilding effort. Our network will offer green building professionals the opportunity to connect directly with these efforts on the ground in Louisiana.

Please help. Bookmark this website: www.greenrelief.org and watch for ways you can get involved. Pass this newsletter on to others who might be interested. We will be publishing special editions of the Healthy Building News with routine updates on the GreenRelief effort, and reports on environmental conditions in Louisiana.


[1] Democracy Now! September 2, 2005 http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=05/09/02/1419218

[2] Louisiana hosts some of the nation's most staggering environmental health nightmares, including an 80 mile stretch of the Mississippi River corridor from Baton Rouge to New Orleans known as Cancer Alley, and 5,800 square miles of "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico stretching from the mouth of the Mississippi River west to shores the shores of Calcasieu Estuary. The Calcasieu Estuary is itself one of the most heavily dioxin-contaminated areas in the U.S. by virtue of its proximity to the Lake Charles region, the PVC production capital of the nation.

[3] "Is There a Human Right to a Healthy Environment?" Healthy Building News, March 10. 2005.

[4] "The Unbearable Lightness of Being Green" Healthy Building News, April 19, 2004.

[5] http://www.usgbc.org/Docs/LEED_tsac/Subra_PVC_Abstract.pdf. Subra's Supplemental 2005 filing can be viewed on the Healthy Building Network website: http://www.healthybuilding.net/usgbc/tsac.html

[6] "W.House Molded EPA's 9/11 Reports" CBS News, August 22, 2003 (online) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/08/09/national/main567489.shtml

[7] http://www.myhouseisyourhouse.org

[8] Louisiana Bucket Brigade http://www.labucketbrigade.org/about/index.shtml

[9] The Goldman Environmental Prize http://www.goldmanprize.org

[10] ABC News Person of the Week, April 23, 2004 http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/PersonOfWeek/

[11] "Polluters that Dump on Communities of Color Are Finally Being Brought to Justice" Jim Motavalli, emagazine.com, July/August 1998. http://www.emagazine.com/view/?250