Guest blog by Callie Casstevens, LABB summer intern. Callie can be reached at email@example.com.
Louisiana is faced with a crisis of epic proportions. The most recent threat being the BP oil spill which continues to pour into the Gulf, and secondly, the refineries which emit toxic chemicals on a weekly basis into the air we breathe and the water we drink. It is overwhelming to think of exactly how much individuals are exposed to on a daily basis, by simply walking outside and breathing, or having a summer time shrimp po-boy.
Yesterday a group of Louisiana Bucket Brigade workers drove to St. Bernard to meet with two amazing people who were eager to share their experiences, knowledge, and information regarding the situation the Parish is currently faced with.
One of these individuals that met with us, was a community activist who prefers to remain unnamed. She is a St. Bernard resident who works tirelessly on the issue of refinery pollution and its impact on residents health and ability to live in their homes. St. Bernard is no stranger to devastation, on August 29, 2005, the largest land based oil spill in the world occurred in the Parish. The Murphy Oil facility failed to follow its own hurricane preparedness guidelines, which resulted in the floodwaters lifting an oil storage tank, and causing a million gallons of oil to seep into the surrounding neighborhoods. The BP oil spill may feel like deja vu for many of the community members.
The second individual who met with us today, was Mike Sherwood, a man who knew the Parish backwards and forwards. Mike is an active community member who also works hard on refinery issues and how they impact the community. Driving through the neighborhoods, Katrina’s thumb print is still apparent, complete neighborhoods, which once were bustling with activity, are completely empty…completely gone. Many foundation slabs still lay like tombs on the ground, painted pink. I thought this was very interesting, to see slab after slab painted a pepto bismol pink. Mike declared that the state bought many of the properties through a grant program created after Katrina and painted the foundation slabs pink as a form of asbestos treatment. The Parish at one time, had actually wanted to BURN the asbestos materials in order to hasten the clean up process after Katrina.
The massive oil spill by the Murphy Oil Refinery after Katrina resulted in devastation for the entire community. Mike described how the oil spill spread for miles, and the flood water evidenced a filmy sheen. The area that was actually completely filled with the oil the refinery ignored and did not “buy out,” rather, Murphy went door to door and informed their fence line neighbors that they had been contaminated and needed to move. The refinery bought their property and is now able to fulfill their goals of further expansion. Despite the fact that those properties were NOT damaged by the oil spill, it was the houses further down which had almost six inches worth of oil lining their neighborhood. However, the actual homes damaged by the Murphy spill were not located in the section the refinery wanted to expand into, and were not as convenient for their expansion goals as the fence line neighbors were.
The skyline of St. Bernard is not of cypress trees with Spanish Moss flowing in the wind, rather, it is tall smoke stacks flaring or pouring out smoke on a constant basis. The refineries almost look like the Emerald City from Wizard of Oz, a mysterious city behind a chain length fence. The smell from the plants was nauseating, even driving by them I felt sick. The smell is reminiscent of dry erase markers mixed with chlorine, imagine having to live next to that on a daily basis. In fact, I did not realize how close the residential homes were to the refineries. One woman sat on her front porch while we drove by, swaying back and forth in an old rocking chair, while not more than 50 feet behind her home was a testing facility and smoke stacks towering in the sky.
Mike has lived in the Parish his entire life, and as he looked out the car window he would point at a tank farm and state, “That used to be pasture, cows, horses…” and driving further he stated, “There used to be a pool there the kids would swim in.” The refineries started to buy property in the Parish to expand their production and storage capacity. Initially, the refineries called it a “green space,” that was needed between the refineries and the neighborhoods, however, every time they had an opportunity to create space between the neighborhoods and the production facility, they would just expand and come closer to the fence lines. After individuals realized there was nothing “green” about it, Murphy Oil began calling it a “buffer zone,” that phrase also did not pass muster for very long, today, the refineries call it a “buy out/up area.” The distance between the backyards chain length fences and the tanks or facility buildings could be hit by a little league pitcher, it’s all too close for comfort.
What I also found interesting was how wrong the argument by many of these corporations is in asserting that their refineries employee the community and create economy. No, in fact in St. Bernard there was only 250 citizens actually employed by them, and recently, 35 were laid off. Economy? Job growth? Not as far as the people who live there can see.
The other community activist directed our attention to what appeared to be a small park for children, a swing set sat towards the back and lush green grass padded the ground. However, this park for children, was built in a dangerous spot. The area was reported by the refineries own air test, as having some of the worst air particulate matter in the entire state of Louisiana. The refinery responsible decided that since they were dealing with potentially negative publicity, to build a playground for the community. The known, recorded, and proven toxic area turned into a play ground for children, I cannot see any logic, nor can I see any one with a heart who could have decided to develop there. And at the park’s fence line, caged in, is the refineries air testing station. Mike shook his head, “All we want is for them to leave us alone.”
Mike and the other community activist continued to point out homes and families that had been affected. Mike said, “My father passed away…friends, I could point out almost every house in this neighborhood where people have died of some type of respiratory problem or cancer.” The other community activist nodding in agreement.
St. Bernard is trying to take positive steps as a community, for instance, the 9th grade level is now separate from the middle school and high school. This is an attempt to combat the high school dropout rate, allowing students to have a smoother transition and not give up on their educations. However, the brand new facility is in between two refineries.
After driving around with the two St. Bernard activists, the Bucket Brigade had lunch at Rocky & Carlo’s Restaurant, where their catch phrase is, “Ladies Invited.” The people of St. Bernard smile when you walk in a room, ask how you are doing, and really care what your response is. The atmosphere is akin to walking into your families kitchen, and feeling at home. The communities home however, is being threatened daily, their families health at risk, and their futures in jeopardy. So when I asked how they were doing as well, I really do care what they have to say.