Day 16 – November 18
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?!