Day 21 – November 23

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

The skyline in West Virginia as we drove up Kayford Mountain, leveled by mountaintop removal.

The skyline in West Virginia as we drove up Kayford Mountain, leveled by mountaintop removal.

A USGS map reflecting the past and future loss and gain of wetlands along coastal Louisiana.

A USGS map reflecting the past and future loss and gain of wetlands along coastal Louisiana.

The view of the marsh from LUMCON, showing areas of water that were once land.

The view of the marsh from LUMCON, showing areas of water that were once land.

A cypress swamp at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette that shows the fragile cypress ecosystem we saw in the Atchafalaya.

A cypress swamp at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette that shows the fragile cypress ecosystem we saw in the Atchafalaya.

An Exxon-Mobil chemical plant along Cancer Alley.

An Exxon-Mobil chemical plant along Cancer Alley.

A home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans that still bears the scars of Hurricane Katrina.

A home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans that still bears the scars of Hurricane Katrina.

Katelyn Repash 

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