Saturday, March 31, 2007

2007 EAOP Environmental Justice Field Trip

This March, ten students and myself completed our most recent two-week study trip to Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," the 87 mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is home to one of the largest concentration of petrochemical plants in the country. We saw impacted communities and talked with a variety of community activists, labor organizers, journalists, public officials, chemical plant executives, public interest lawyers, biologists, and ecologists. This year, we also did two days of service work with the Common Ground Collective that has been doing grassroots hurricane reconstruction work since Hurricane Katrina. Here is a list of several of the people we talked with on our trip:

Marylee Orr

Marylee is the Executive Director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, a state-wide coalition of over 100 grassroots groups working on environmental justice issues, as well as more conventional environmental protection and hurricane relief. When we visited LEAN’s headquarters in Baton Rouge, Marylee told us about her own journey to activism about twenty years ago, gave some background on LEAN’s work, including its post-Katrina recovery efforts . She also had several people from the wider "LEAN family" to give us an overview or environmental justice and protection issues in Lousiana.

Wilma Subra

One of these members of the larger LEAN family was Wilma Subra, president of Subra Company, an environmental consulting firm founded in 1981. Since then Wilma has provided technical assistance to community groups on a wide range of environmental issues including oil and gas drilling, production and waste issues. She is also a founding board member of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project that works with communities to prevent and reduce the social, economic and environmental problems caused by oil and gas development. She currently serves on a number of Environmental Protection Agency national advisory committees, including the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Willie Fontenot

Willie is often described as the grandfather of the environmental movement in Louisiana and has been a major player in helping grassroots groups organize around environmental justice issues in Cancer Alley. He is now semi-retired and working part-time for LEAN. For 27 years before that he was the Environmental Liaison from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office. He was forced out of his job in 2005 for defending the legal rights of our students during the last field studies trip we undertook to Louisiana. Willie and his wife Mary hosted to us dinner at their house and offered us a broad historical overview of the environmental justice movement in Louisiana. Willie also attend various meetings with us while we are in Baton Rouge, took us on a tour of the River Road communities, and attended one of our meetings in New Orleans.

Bob Landry

Bob is the President of a Steelworkers Union Local that represents Exxon-Mobil workers in the Baton Rouge area. When we visited him at the Steelworkers Union Hall he served us gumbo and stories from his many years of experience working on environmental health and safety concerns.

David Wise

David is the plant manager for a major Shintech PVC manufacturing facility. Shintech was taken to the woodshed by LEAN and other community groups when it tried to locate a facility in the St. James Parish in the late 1990s. The Shintech corporation learned some lessons from this battle, which it lost, and has since tried to position itself as one of the most socially and environmentally responsible petrol-chemical production plants in Louisiana. Davd has even given presentations at environmental justice conferences. He talked with our students about the lessons his company learned in the first fight with grassroots activists, what they did differently when they built the plant we visited, and then answered our questions. He also took us on a tour of the plant.

Paul Templet

Dr. Paul Templet is a professor of environmental studies at Louisiana State University. He teaches environmental planning and management and conducts research concerning environmental management, risk assessment, energy analysis and systems analysis of economic and environmental systems. Paul was also Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality from 1988-1992 and has developed and implemented Coastal Management Programs in Louisiana and American Samoa. His most current research involves the connections between economy and environment and the resulting policy ramifications. He has authored over thirty papers in professional journals, 5 book chapters and has been an invited speaker at numerous meetings.

Ivor Van Heerden

Ivor is the cofounder and deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and the director of the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes. He holds a Ph.D. in marine sciences from LSU and is the author of the hard-hitting book The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina—The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist.

Mark Schleifstein

Mark is a Pulitzer award-winning reporter for the Times Picayune, the major daily newspaper in New Orleans. He has covered several environmental justice struggles in Cancer Alley as well as written extensively about the loss of wetlands to the south of the city and the impact and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He recently co-authored the well-received book Path of Destruction:”The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms. Mark is also a member of the Association of Environmental Journalists.

Common Ground Organizers

The Common Ground Collective is a grassroots community renewal organization founded by Mailik Rahim, who visited our Antioch University New England to talk with Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Students last Fall. Common Ground utilizes volunteers from all over the country to help local people with hurricane reconstruction, community health, legal issues, and environmental justice concerns. We spent two days volunteering with Common Ground, took part in one of their free diners, and an evening political education session on solidarity against racism.

Adam Babich

Adam teaches environmental law and directs the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. Before joining the Tulane faculty, Adam was a Chicago-based litigator whose practice emphasized environmental and insurance-related disputes. He has also served as an environmental enforcement lawyer for the Colorado Attorney General, as adjunct attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, as editor-in-chief of the Environmental Law Reporter, and as a judicial law clerk for the Colorado Supreme Court. He has taught at Georgetown University Law Center, American University, and the University of Denver and has an extensive publications record.

Clarice Friloux

Clarice is a Native American of the Houma Nation in Louisiana. She has worked with Wilma Subra on monitoring a series of open pit industrial waste dumps in her community. She took us to view the pits and then spoke to us of her impacted community near Houma and the community struggle to defend their health from the impacts of the dump.

Margie Richard

Margie is a retired school teacher who lived in Diamond, Louisiana’s black community right next to a Shell refinery outside of New Orleans. She lead the community fight that eventually compelled the Shell Oil Corporation to pay black residents money for their polluted homes so the residents could move away from a poisoned and dangerous neighborhood. For this effort, Margie has won the Goldman Environmental Prize. (Her story is also recounted in the book by Steve Lerner called Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor.) She took us on a tour of her former neighborhood and talked to us about her community's efforts to win justice from Shell in a playground directly adjacent to the plant.

Beverly Wright

Dr. Beverly Wright is the founder and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University. For more than a decade, she has been a leading scholar, advocate, and activist in the environmental justice arena. Dr. Wright is an original member of the Michigan Coalition (an ad hoc group that advised William Reilly during his tenure at the Environmental Protection Agency). She was also a member of the National Advisory Committee for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, and the Planning/Protocol Committees for the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences' Health and Research Needs to Ensure Environmental Justice National Symposium. She has directed numerous grassroots community-initiated health surveys, evaluated community buy-outs, and supervised community development initiatives around contaminated sites.

Darryl Malek-Wiley

Darryl is a veteran of the environmental justice movement in Louisiana. He has worked for over 30 years with communities along the Mississippi River to fight toxic pollution and protect peoples' health. Darryl joined the Sierra Club Environmental Justice Program in June 2004 to support the efforts of Louisiana environmental justice groups on issues including toxics, pollution and environmental health. Darryl was also key organizer of the Great Toxics March from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in 1988. This march defined the problem of toxic emissions in the "cancer alley" and launched the campaign for improvement that continues today. Darryl now does community organizing for the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association as well.

My sincere thanks to all of these busy people who made time to help our students learn about the science and politics of hurricanes and environmental justice issues.