Today marks the end of our voyage to Louisiana as we return to Carlisle, waking up for an 8:00 AM departure from our hotel in Virginia. The drive is mostly rainy and gray, with many of us in the vans either asleep or in thought over our experiences from the past three weeks. We left for Louisiana with a good academic grasp of the issues we had discussed, such as coal mining, land loss in coastal Louisiana, and the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina. As we make our final leg of this journey, we’re left with a lot to think about, and possibly more questions still unanswered than answered.
The first issue we encountered involved the extraction of natural resources, particularly Marcellus Shale gas and coal, and the property rights associated with the ownership of those resources. The extraction of these resources is intended to provide electricity to many others across the Atlantic coast, but it is at the cost of those who happened to have these resources located literally in their backyards. Do we allow this to continue and let a few citizens bear the cost of electricity for many other citizens? How do we influence policy and industry to strengthen the regulation of extraction?
As we made our way farther south, we witnessed the destruction that the mountaintop removal of coal is causing as it reshapes and flattens the West Virginia skyline. This was again a challenging problem because while some citizens are opposed to the removal of mountaintops, employees of the coal companies are very loyal to their employers and try to silence those who protest their industry. There is a very clear divide among people in the communities around Kayford Mountain and other removal areas, which contributes to the conflict around mountaintop removal. How can we make this removal less damaging yet efficient enough to meet the demand for coal energy? How can we protect the health of those living with this coal removal and how can we repair the ties among communities divided by the issue? Can alternative sources of energy provide a solution?
Our time at LUMCON in Cocodrie and in Lafayette opened our eyes to the complexities surrounding the topic of coastal land loss in Louisiana. Before we left, we familiarized ourselves with the issue, what has caused it, and potential solutions from differing experts. But once we went down the bayou and experienced the issue first hand, it became much more complex. If the damming and levee systems of the Mississippi River are to blame for sediment deprivation and land loss, then how do we restore and repair the coast? Do we pipeline slurry as Kerry St. Pe suggested? If so, what are the potential impacts of sediment contaminated by pollution along the Mississippi? If that is not practical, do we follow Denise Reed’s advice and divert a portion of the river, abandoning the bird’s foot delta and creating new land farther upstream? If we do this, how will it affect the salt gradient along the estuary and how will it impact oysters, shrimp, other species, and the livelihood of Cajuns like Carl Sevin whose culture has been based around the wetlands and estuary?
We met our next issue in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as we travelled down Cancer Alley and observed the vast amounts of air pollution taking place. As we toured the communities of New Sarpy and the Diamond community with Wilma Subra, we gained an understanding of the way that industry impacts communities and the difficulties that community members face in overcoming the oppression of industry. Though the obvious answer to this seems to be to relocate the communities impacted, it seems unfair to break up the communities for the industry. How do we keep communities healthy as individuals and as a whole? How can we put legislature into place to protect them from industry? How much of the problem is industry responsible for and how should they compensate for it? Is there a way to correct this environmental justice issue that is fair for both community members and industry?
The final subject we encountered became a reality as we drove through New Orleans. We saw the blend of homes ranging from untouched since Katrina, under construction, and recently rebuilt that you often see in the news or on TV. However, seeing this all in person suddenly made it a new problem and made the issue very real, gapping the distance that many of us had from the issue. We discussed how to build resilience in communities post-Katrina so that they can come back quicker in case of another disaster. We worked alongside community members at Blair Grocery and Holly Grove Market and saw how urban agriculture projects are aiding in the repair of the New Orleans area. And just by chance, we met and spoke with Mr. Robert Green in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, who stood as proof that there is still an immense amount of hope for the recovery of this city beneath all the talk of levees, flooding, Katrina, and the Army Corps of Engineers. This portion of our trip may have raised the most questions for us, as we gained a better understanding of the rebuilding process taking place. How do we rebuild the impacted communities so that they can withstand a future disaster, both physically and emotionally? Should we even try? How do we convince people to rebuild after they have unexpectedly lost everything? How do we engineer Louisiana to mitigate the impacts of a future disaster? And, most importantly, how do we help the rebuilding process without taking control of the rebuilding process?
As we make our way back to Carlisle, and then home for the holidays, we’re taking back with us the ideas and experiences we’ve all had along this trip. We’re also taking new perspectives on the issues we’ve encountered, as we have been offered a variety of views by a variety of people. Overall, I think this trip has taught us that the things we study seem much more simple from our classroom in Kaufman 116, but once we experience the problems first-hand, they are much more complex than we could have expected.
A GALLERY OF IMAGES
Our journey home today got off to a great start with a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, TN. We all jumped out of the vans as excited as any kids would be and headed into the exhibits. The aquarium is divided into two buildings, with the freshwater and saltwater separated. The freshwater section was very well done; it began in the headwaters and followed the path of a river down the Gulf of Mexico. While we enjoyed seeing the otters and the different kinds of turtles and tortoises, it was also really awesome to see everything we have learned throughout the semester condensed into several exhibits. In addition to what we have learned about the Mississippi watershed, there was the connection to the Tennessee River, which was something new for most of us. The exhibits covered the different ecosystems that the river travels through, and the changes that people have made to the river. Every time there was a button to press for the sounds of a tree frog or there was a sturgeon to touch, we all rushed to do it.
PICTURE GALLLERY FROM THE TENNESSEE AQUARIUM
After seeing the giant fish, jellyfish, and penguins in the saltwater exhibit, we headed out on the road again. We traveled most of the day through Tennessee and finally reached Virginia around dinnertime. Only one more day to go, and while we’re all excited to get back to Dickinson, it’s hitting us that we’re almost done.
We left New Orleans on a gray, miserable, and rainy morning. Thankfully, we were only travelling so the weather didn’t bother us much. Throughout the day we travelled from New Orleans, through Alabama through a tiny corner of Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Leaving New Orleans wraps up most of our trip; from here on out we’re just travelling back north. Watching the sprawling outskirts of New Orleans go by, I began to think about the rebuilding of the city. I still haven’t decided whether I think that the people here are incredibly brave or just the slightest bit crazy. I cannot imagine living here with such a constant threat of disaster but on the other hand, the citizens we have talked to seem to love New Orleans and are very attached to it. If you look at the threat of a flood by on an individual perspective, the probability that something like Katrina will happen is probably only once in a lifetime. So it would make sense for an individual to remain. I guess the greater question is whether New Orleans will endure as a united whole.
I was greatly surprised and encouraged by the progress that I saw in the Lower Ninth Ward, despite the fact that redevelopment is slow. The houses we saw looked closer to what we saw in Cocodrie than the traditional New Orleans houses: most were raised up on stilts. They looked as though they might be able to withstand a massive hurricane and flood (although, I suppose that only time will tell). They were also very sustainable houses. I would want to live in a house like Global Green’s projects. Despite the horrors of Katrina, on the bright side, it has given the people a chance to redevelop in a much more sustainable way. Green building tends to be a problem in cities where infrastructure is old and refurnishing is expensive. However, starting from scratch gives people a chance to develop in a way which will conserve energy and build structures which will last into the future. It seems as though some parts of New Orleans are taking the opportunity.
I think that we all have mixed feelings that our trip is beginning to wind down. On one hand, I think we will all be glad to not be living out of the vans anymore. However, this trip has been an extraordinary experience that has affected all of us in some way or another. We are all now tied to the issues we have seen. Whether we are fired up about mountain top removal or worried about coastal wetland loss, or about the redevelopment of New Orleans, we will all take something away from this trip. There has been talk throughout the group of trying to find some way to give back. We will continue to try to develop a small project which we can support even after our trip is over.
We have definitely come together as a group now. Driving through Alabama, the Heiman van decided to create nicknames for everyone and to give each student their future by naming each someone we have met during our travels. Having met an array of interesting people, I don’t think anyone complained about their “future.” Hopefully, we can live up to it.
This morning we woke up early to meet with Ann in the Holy Cross neighborhood for a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward led by Darryl Malek Wiley. When we arrived at Holy Cross, we went straight to the top of the Mississippi River levee that acts as an earthen wall around the neighborhood separating it from the water below. As we took our seats on the side of the levee we took out our notebooks and began our note-taking as we listened to Darryl Malek Wiley. Darryl is the Sierra Club Environmental Justice Coordinator for the state of Louisiana. He is also the co-originator of the term “Cancer Alley” – a term that we have become very familiar with in our travels and that denotes the corridor of polluting industrial plants that line the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. He has worked for over 30 years with communities along the Mississippi River to fight toxic pollution and protect peoples’ health. After Katrina, he has been very active in working with community groups to build capacity for recovery.
Darryl explained to us about Mr. GO. During Katrina, The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (Mr. GO), built by the Army Corps of Engineers for navigation, acted as a funnel for storm surge which overtopped and eventually broke the Industrial St. Canal and flooded the Lower Ninth Ward and adjacent areas. After Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers was forced to close the outlet. Just within the last couple of days, a judge has held the Army Corps of Engineers responsible for damages from Mr. GO, including rebuilding homes and coastal restoration. Although most believe the case will be appealed and move up through the judicial system, many groups who have been working for the closure of Mr. GO were very happy to see the decision.
The second stop was at the Global Green USA Holy Cross Project. Global Green USA is an organization that has built 5 homes in the Holy Cross neighborhood that are all LEED platinum certified. These houses were built for people that have been displaced from their homes. The homes have solar panels that are tied into the grid system which lowers power bills, dual flushing toilets, rooftop gardens, rain water collection systems, and non off-gassing paints, glues and carpets.
Next we got into the vans and went down to St. Claude Corridor, an area that is a high priority to be rebuilt because it is a central street through the Lower Ninth. There was an old Walgreens on the street that the Episcopal Church has taken over and uses as a safe space for afterschool and weekend programs for children. Next we drove by the Martin Luther King elementary school. This was a public school before Katrina, but a decision was made to not clean or re-open it. Neighborhood residents broke into the school and cleaned it up deciding that if the state would not clean it, they would. The school was re-opened as a charter school. Many of the schools in New Orleans that used to be public are now private or charter schools. We also stopped by the School at Blair Grocery again to see the facility that provides opportunities for high school students to get their GEDs and learn about sustainable farming and how to tend to the earth. Seeing community projects, religious efforts, and individual desire to help children and families come back and succeed while the city is being rebuilt is a moving experience.
The last stop that we made with Darryl was at Bayou Bienvenue where we saw a planting project by students from the University of Wisconsin. Bayou Bienvenue used to be a cypress-tupelo swamp but now, because of the flow of water into the bayou, it has turned to open water. Just one acre of cypress swamps can lower storm surge by one foot, so it’s easy to see why rebuilding these cypress-tupelo swamps is so important. Students from the University of Wisconsin have planted several floating mats of marsh grass and are monitoring their growth until they can hopefully be used to plant new cypress trees. While this would only be a small project it would be a good model because of its close proximity to the city of New Orleans and because it would be useful in protecting the Lower Ninth Ward.
Next we went to the “Make it Right” neighborhood which is where our very busy tour guide Darryl had to part with us. “Make it Right” is the group that has been working with Brad Pitt to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward in a sustainable way. “Make It Right” had architects from all over the world design homes for lots in the Lower Ninth Ward, and then people got to pick the home design that they wanted to be built on their old property. Residents pay for the new houses, but the homes have been made affordable by donors and special loan arrangements.
While walking around the neighborhood of new homes we met Robert Green, a resident of the neighborhood, who invited us into his home for a tour. Mr. Green, who tragically lost his mother and granddaughter during the Katrina levee failure in his neighborhood, explained all of the advancements in his new home that made it LEED Platinum, while we stood on his driveway in a neighborhood that still looks very much like a construction zone. The contrast of all of the empty lots and abandoned buildings around the rest of the Lower Ninth Ward with this neighborhood was unbelievable. Mr. Green was the last person that we spoke to as a group in New Orleans and he was a perfect conclusion to our week. While all of us could only see the destruction and how far there still is to go to fix everything, he saw the progress and the improvements to his neighborhood. As Ann had explained to us the day before, we need to see that the glass is half full, not that it is half empty. He was one of the most optimistic and inspiring people that we came across on our trip. Despite the loss that he has experienced, he can still see the gain and the recovery and the improvements that are going on, instead of focusing only on what is yet to be done. It was the perfect end to our morning.
We went to Ben’s Pizza for lunch where we wrapped up the day, shared our thoughts, perceptions and experiences from the service projects yesterday, and said goodbye to Ann. The rest of the day was spent shopping for gifts and taking in as much of the French Quarter as we could in our last night in New Orleans.
Up next: 3 days in the vans as we make our trek back up north to a place without cypress swamps and too filled with sweater weather.
“Imagine losing everything you own, getting taken to an airport, not knowing where you are going until you are in the air, being de-fogged upon arrival, therefore feeling ‘contaminated’, and not even knowing where you are going until you are in the air.” This was the image the 2009 Luce students awoke to on the morning of November 19th. Former Dickinson College graduate, Ann Yoachim was trying to convey the pain and suffering New Orleans residents endured during the August 2005 storm hurricane Katrina.
Ann graduated from Dickinson in 1999 and has a Masters of Public Health with a focus on International Development from Tulane University. She is presently the Program Manager for the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, where she specializes in program management and research related to building resilient communities. She works closely with many neighborhood groups in New Orleans, as well as the United Houma Nation.
While describing her own work in New Orleans, Ann briefly discussed where New Orleans is today after the devastation of Katrina. Due to the immensity of the damages to certain parts of New Orleans, there was a question as to whether the city was safe to return to soon after the storm. Yet, how do you tell someone who has lost everything they own that they cannot return home — return to the only things they truly do have left, their property, their culture, their family and friends? These return decisions have had their ongoing consequences however. In order to combat these damages from ever happening again, Ann has been working with specific at-risk communities and working with them on community resilience and addressing issues of vulnerability.
While the damages to the city and its people, the disaster (whether it be natural of not) response time, and the stratification of classes in the city were some of the greatest tragedies this country has ever seen, there has certainly been much improvement due in part to people like Ann (you really can make a difference with a Dickinson education!). After Ann’s setting of the scene, we were off! Off to learn about what good others are making of the difficult situation in New Orleans and off to try to make a small contribution.
The Luce team split up into two different groups: half helping at The School at Blair Grocery in the Lower Ninth Ward, while the other half volunteered at the Hollygrove Market & Farm (HM&F). At HM&F we were greeted by Americorp VISTA employee, Bill Pastellak. After brief introductions, Bill promptly gave us a tour of his beloved facility, which grows multiple vegetables and raises hens for educational purposes. HM&F, he describes, is unlike any CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or Farmers Market you have ever seen. HM&F, through funds from the New Orleans Farm and Food Network, is able to give plots to local growers, allowing them to grow produce and eventually sell it back to the market. HM&F also purchases produce for sale every Saturday from growers within a 100-mile radius using best-management practices.
Most of the work that Luce students did today at this site was for Ronald Terry. Ronald was taking over a plot of land on the property from a previous gardener who had recently moved away. Ronald, a man of pure warmth and passion for gardening would frequently tell the students to “not stress themselves” and leave most of the hard work for him to do. A true showing of southern hospitality, Ronald was more than happy when the students helping him took an hour break to eat pizza!
After learning much from Bill and Ronald, it was time for the Dickinson students to share with HM&F on the goings-on at the Dickinson College farm, a perfect parallel to today’s experience. Students Evan Kendall and Anna Farb took the floor and gave a brilliant synopsis of the College farm and the cutting edge technologies utilized there; Jenn Halpin would be proud!
The other group went to an educational farm in the Lower Ninth Ward to share information about our College Farm but also to aid in their agricultural and community efforts. The school was called Our School at Blair Grocery (If you are into reading blogs, which you must be, as you are now, check out theirs! http://schoolatblairgrocery.blogspot.com/). The site, a former grocery store that was destroyed by Katrina, occupies a corner plot on Benton Street. The school was established by a spirited man named Nat Turner in an effort to blend community food production with education, ultimately culminating as a GED program that helps supply fresh produce to the Lower Ninth Ward. The Dickinson group helped them build a new compost pile with a truck load of coffee grounds, build new garden beds and tear up some pernicious weeds. While working, our group was led by the farm’s AmeriCorps volunteer, Brennan Dougherty. After helping with the labor for a few hours, Alex and Katelyn gave a short presentation about the Dickinson College Farm. This helped spark a lively discussion about the merits of urban gardening on urban renewal. Through this conversation they found that in many instances the resources and sustainable wisdom of Dickinson match the needs of Our School at Blair Grocery. Contact information was exchanged in an effort to maintain the sharing of experience between the Dickinson students and Our School at Blair Grocery.
After eating the spoils gleaned at Our School at Blair Grocery (multiple ripe pomegranates), the students were treated to an evening lecture from esteemed Dillard University Urban Planning professor and Dean, Dr. Bob Collins. Dr. Collins brought the day full circle by discussing the unique history and culture of New Orleans in terms of classism, racism, and discrimination, and how the proposed policy decisions after the Katrina devastation fit into this context. By learning the ins and outs of the different organizations proposing to rebuild New Orleans such as the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOBC) and the United New Orleans Plan (UNOP) and understanding the stakeholders behind these propositions we learned about how and why things happen the way they do in such a politically run city. Lastly, we discussed whether Brad Pitt, who is building green houses for residents of the Lower Ninth Ward who lost their homes, is truly “Making it Right”. Whereas many people complain that he is spending money on out-of-state labor, and affecting only a small section of the city by building houses that don’t truly follow the traditional architecture of the historic area, others point out that he has spent more on rebuilding of New Orleans than the federal government and is providing an important option to residents who choose to take it. Without NGOs, volunteers, and people like Brad Pitt, how many New Orleans residents would truly be able to come back?
Thank you all for teaching us so much today!
Thomas Robson (with the paragraph on Our School at Blair Grocery by Alex Smith)
We have enjoyed another jam-packed day here in Louisiana. We’ve made it to New Orleans for our last leg of our trek. Today, we toured the famous “Cancer Alley,” where 140 industrial chemical plants line the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Our focus was on the NORCO community, which is sandwiched between a Shell Chemical Oil Refinery and eight industrial facilities, including Shell Chemical, Motiva Refinery and Orion Refinery. It has been heavily impacted by the hundreds of thousands of pounds of emissions released into the air (both permitted and through accidental releases) each year. We were guided by none other than the famous Wilma Subra, a chemist who has been educating and empowering poor, minority communities for two decades to fight against these huge “Cancer Alley” companies who have been polluting their communities.
We started the morning by hopping into the vans to pick up Mrs. Subra. She guided us along Airline Highway and into St. Charles Parish. We could see that the marsh water stopped right at the road and there are no levees protecting the Parish from Lake Pontchartrain storm surges. We turned left on an access road and traveled on a public road with the Shell Chemical Refinery (now called Valero) on both sides of us. We could smell the sour crude oil emanating from the sites. We stopped shortly in the New Sarpy neighborhood. This was our first taste of how close these communities are to the plants. I could have spit from the nearest house to the fence line and hit it (hints why these communities are called “Fenceline” communities). Many communities like this one have fought for relocation from these close proximities to the chemical plants and oil refineries. However, members of the New Sarpy community ultimately agreed to withdraw their relocation efforts in exchange for Shell paying contractors to fix up their homes.
In the case of the Norco neighborhood, 300 members of the African-American populated Diamond community, which is adjacent to the white community of Norco, have been bought out by Shell Chemical. After a strong effort by community members, with technical support from Mrs. Subra, only the two streets nearest to the fence line were offered relocation. The community refused this offer, which would have split their community and the company finally agreed to relocate the entire four streets of Diamond. Now all that is left are a few older citizens who intend to live in their original homes until the end of their lives.
Our next stop was the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers, after the Great Flood of 1927, to allow floodwaters to move from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain, thereby protecting New Orleans from high waters. Environmentalists have argued that the influx of cool, fresh, nutrient- rich water is not good for the lake. Mrs. Subra pointed out that the mixture of cold, nutrient rich water from the Mississippi River and the brackish water of Lake Pontchartrain causes algae blooms and oyster kills. The spillway has only been used 9 times since it was built, with the 9th opening occurring in recent months due to high waters in the Mississippi. We also had a chance to visit the Army Corps of Engineers Bonne Carre office and receive information from employees. Walking along the area behind the flood gates, we noticed our first live alligator of the trip!
Eager to find a place to eat our cooler sandwiches, Wilma brought us to a park that was built by Shell Chemical on the fenceline for the kids of Norco/Diamond. We made and ate our lunches in the shadow of the steaming stacks.
Our final stop was the 17th Street Canal, which was breached during Hurricane Katrina by the storm surge. Underneath the levees, the river eroded the soil, exposing the pilings. As the storm surge swept up the canal, it undermined the levee and flooded the community of Lakeview. The surge was so strong that it pushed houses off their foundations (sometimes found 3 blocks away!) and was partly responsible for 80% of New Orleans flooding. Today, you can see the levees have been restored with deeper pilings. A new lock system is being built which will prevent future storm surges from entering the canal and still allow rainwater which has been pumped from the ground into the canal to drain into Lake Pontchartrain.
After looking at the city a little closer and seeing some of the destruction and new storm mitigation infrastructures, we talked about the future of NOLA and all of Southern Louisiana. After the hurricane, Wilma Subra advocated for a safe return to the city. With help and funding from the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), Wilma was instrumental in providing families with protective gear as they returned to moldy homes, polluted drinking water, and toxic sediments. She often advised families that they should wait to return until the pollution had been mitigated. We also discussed the concern over whether these fixed levees and pump systems would protect the city when (not if) the next Katrina-size storm hits the Gulf Coast.
We continued this discussion and ended our day with a wonderful dinner provided by Ann Yoachim, who is a Dickinson College alum. Ann and another alum, Gabriel Mondino talked to us about what they do in New Orleans and the struggles the city has been facing since Hurricane Katrina and Rita. Mmm jambalaya, red beans and rice, collard greens, and corn bread … Can it get better than this?!
Mr. Fontenot (who is an amazing resource on many topics) told us of the history of Baton Rouge and some of its dirtier past. We took a long “scenic” tour of the streets surrounding the Exxon-Mobil refinery located on Scenic Highway in Baton Rouge. It was a perplexing sight to see such a city of pipes and steam; it seemed so foreign that I felt like I was looking at the underbelly of some diabolical machine. After a couple of minutes of driving we found out what type of machine of mass destruction it was, as Willie told us about an accident that the company had on Christmas day in 1990, after which the company bought up the surrounding houses quietly by purchasing them under different names. We drove by vacant lot after vacant lot, the green grass and live oaks in patterns still revealing the past neighborhood. At the end of the road through these giant vacant lots stood one house owned by an elderly woman who refused to sell — the last stand on the battlefield where community fought industry and industry dominated. The house was nothing special and bore no outward sign that it was the last fortress standing up against the giant.
The next thing Mr. Fontenot told us about was one of the many issues in which he helped a community get a voice. Shintech, a chemical plant which produces polyvinyl chloride (PVC) had applied for the appropriate permits to locate a large facility in Convent, LA in St. James Parish, a primarily low income African-American community. This chemical company was invited to move to Convent by the governor at the time, Mike Foster, and the Department of Commerce and Industry. The plant was told by the government that all the permitting would be done and they need not worry. Even though they had no permits, they boldly moved equipment onto the property. This outraged the citizens of Convent who had Willie help them write a letter to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Within three days of the letter being sent over 30 heavy machines were removed from the plot. Ultimately the PVC plant was not located there because of Willie and the community efforts, but was built at their current location in Addis, in Iberville Parish on a much smaller scale.
Willie joined us when we visited the Shintech plant later that day. Shintech sent two representatives to meet us: David Wise, Plant Manager and Dick Mason, Chief Finance Officer. David Wise was very straight-forward with us about the challenges Shintech had faced when trying to site its chemical plant in Convent, due to the community concerns about the carcinogenic effects of vinyl chloride monomer, which is a major component of the PVC that Shintech produces. Then Mr. Wise went on to discuss the company’s new approach to siting a plant. In the case of this plant, they made sure to contact the community, having open discussions where citizens could come and express their concerns and have questions answered. The major concerns of the community were the issues of air emissions and jobs, both of which Shintech addressed. They also committed to hiring local residents, and held training sessions so that they could learn the skills needed for the jobs available. And finally, some of the higher level management team, such as Mr. Wise, actually moved into the community, making community members feel confident that it was a safe place to live. They made sure they opened every route of communication possible before building the Addis Plant in Iberville and ultimately, the community welcomed them.
Shintech is proud to say that it emits less than its permitting amount and has provided jobs to many of the citizens near the Addis plant. After the presentation on Shintech’s unique approach to community involvement, we were taken on a tour of the plant. The plant appeared quite clean, although they do emit tons of vinyl chloride into the air each year. The main theme Shintech wanted us to leave with was that they lived in the community, gave jobs to people in the community, and wouldn’t live there if they didn’t honestly believe that it was safe. I was very impressed that they were as accommodating as they were; Mr. Wise was wonderful about answering all of our questions honestly. I felt we all walked away with an increased respect for the company and an understanding of some of the obstacles they face when looking for a place to locate their facilities.
Our next adventure was to St. Gabriel, a predominantly African-American community which recently incorporated to make sure that they could have more control of industry locating noxious facilities in their town. We met with two community members, Marcy Hardy and Leroy Alfred, who spoke with us about their successful campaign in 1996 to defeat a proposal by Supplemental Fuels, Inc. (SFI). SFI had hoped to build a hazardous waste facility that would blend hazardous waste with fuel to create an alternative fuel — practically right in Marcy’s back yard. She was already very close to a loud tank farm and vehemently opposed the creation of this new hazardous waste facility, which had dressed itself up to look like a green way to deal with hazardous waste. She, along with other community members showed that the ground was poor to build on and that if the waste site leaked there would be no way for the surrounding community to get out. Marcy only found out about the proposed facility 12 days before the permit was to be issued and pulled together news coverage, marches and information about how Supplemental Fuels had lied on their permit. She and the other community members managed to convince the DEQ not to allow the plant there and the plant backed out. A couple of months later people in the community incorporated and in their agreement made zoning laws prohibiting the building of another hazardous waste site in their community.
We were very lucky throughout our day to have Willie with us, who provided constant information on a wealth on topics and guided us through our first day in “Cancer Alley.” To read about environmental justice in class is very different from meeting with people who live with these issues day in and day out, like Mr. Alfred , who is now on a personal oxygen tank. He worked with asbestos for years but cannot make a clear connection between the exposure and his illness. It is people like Mr. Leroy and Mrs. Hardy that we thank for sharing their stories and for fighting for the simple right to clean air, clean water, and to say “not in my back yard, and not in anyone’s back yard.”
After a wonderful weekend of exploring the city of Lafayette and catching up on sleep, we returned to our usual busy schedule. Our morning began at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Wetlands Research Center, only a few miles away from the Blue Moon Guesthouse. Gabrielle Bodin, the outreach coordinator, greeted us and gave us an overview of Louisiana coastal wetlands. She spoke about the wetlands’ functions and their economic importance to the state, including the fishing, hunting, timber, and farming industries. Gabrielle noted that it is the USGS that generally does the aerial mapping to delineate the land-loss that we have studied all semester. Interestingly, she also talked about a recent study done by a USGS scientist, who confirmed the correlation between oil extraction and the subsidence of land. We have discussed this connection many times in class and on the road and are excited to have some evidence.
Next, Dr. Thomas Michot, a scientist at the center, spoke with us about the USGS. It is a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, along with agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, and Minerals Management Service. While biological research was once conducted within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, it was decided that non-biased scientific research should take place in a separate department, that is a department that is not also responsible for management. Thus, government research in hydrology, geology, geography, and biology now takes place under the USGS.
Our next host, Jacoby Carter, hails from our very own Harrisburg, PA. He showed us some of the experiments going on at center, involving crawfish, snails, and green tree frogs. He and his undergraduate students track the frogs by injecting them with fluorescent tags. We were sad to hear that Dr. Carter believes that nutria, the invasive and beaver-like rodents we’ve encountered several times this semester, may soon be found in our own backyard, or at least along the Susquehanna.
We finished up our time at the research center by looking at how the USGS produces maps. We decided that we are very happy to have digital map capabilities and no longer need to trace coastlines by hand.
The Lucers headed back to the Blue Moon to throw together our lunches (including a peanut butter and jelly omelet) before hitting the road again. We drove over to the Acadian Cultural Center, where Matthew, a student at LSU, showed us around. We learned about traditional Acadian housing, music, religion, and food. For example, the word “gumbo” or “gombo” comes from Africa as the word for okra; however, most people today don’t use okra in their gumbo. We watched two short videos: The Cajun Way: Echoes of Acadia and The Atchafalaya Swamp Revisited. The first film explained how the Acadians came to live in southern Louisiana. They moved from France to Acadie, which is now Nova Scotia, but were then forced out by the British because of religious discrimination. The second film was about how the control of the Missis sippi River changed the Atchafalaya swamplands and the way of life of the people living there. Today’s activities were yet another example of how the environment and culture of southern Louisiana are inextricably intertwined.
As I write this, Lucers are lounging on couches talking and reading, and wandering in and out of the kitchen, where a home-cooked dinner is being prepared by head-chef Cara. On the menu: chili, cornbread and a salad. I’m sure it’ll be a delicious ending to our time in Lafayette!
On the schedule for Day 13 of our trip was rest and relaxation. Instead of waking up at 8 AM as usual, people slowly made their way downstairs after a few extra hours of sleep. It was sunny and warm outside, so the porch of the Blue Moon was filled with students wearing shorts and writing journal entries. The free time gave some of us the opportunity to explore the city of Lafayette. A short walk away is Louisiana University at Lafayette. At the center of campus, there is a small cypress swamp area, which contains alligators. Lafayette is also home to a number of small art galleries, many of which we saw during an art walk earlier in the week.
The city of Lafayette has a rich history and a blend of cultures. It is known as a center of Cajun and Creole culture, and has French, American, Spanish, Indian and African influences. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area was inhabited by the Attakapas, Opelousas, Alabamons and Choctaw Indians. Traders and trappers lived in the area in the mid 1700s, before the Spanish occupied the area in 1766. Different areas of Louisiana were occupied by the Spanish and French throughout its history. Acadians moved into the area in the late 1700s after being exiled from Nova Scotia in 1755. They arrived from areas all along the east coast and the Carribean, after being given permission to settle in Southern Louisiana by the King of Spain in 1784. At that time the city was called Vermillionville. Many French settled in the area following the French Revolution in 1789 and the land became a part of America in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. The city was renamed Lafayette in 1884 after the French leader of the same name. Today the city is known for its Cajun music, food and art (For more information see: http://www.lafayettetravel.com/culture/history/) .
Today, I was sitting on a swing behind the Blue Moon, thinking about everything that we’ve done and seen since we’ve been in Louisiana. Someone we met was saying that he didn’t like how close Lafayette was getting to the Gulf of Mexico. But the people we’ve met in Louisiana don’t seem as angry as I expected them to be about coastal land loss. Everyone knows it is happening and that their land will keep getting closer to water, as storms like Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike take away miles of land and leave water behind. Instead of being angry, they are all trying to come up with solutions, even if they are small or unlikely to be implemented. And perhaps they are learning to accept what they cannot control.
Also, it’s true what they say about southern hospitality. I’ve never been in a place where so many strangers talked to me or asked me to dance at a dance hall where everyone was just there to dance. I’ve also never been to a breakfast that felt like a Friday night, as I did with a Zydeco breakfast we went to a couple of mornings ago in Lafayette. The room was packed full of people dancing to zydeco, and eating eggs and grits, just listening to the music.
For dinner tonight, most of us went to Artmosphere, a café/restaurant/music venue across the street, and then to Borden’s to get banana splits. As we understand it, this is the only remaining Borden’s ice cream store in the country – and the company has turned to manufacturing chemicals! After dinner and dessert, everyone made their way over to the music and the dance floor. It was the CD release party for a band called Major Handy. Beans (with sausage) and rice were being served and continued late into the night.