‘Resilience’ theme irks locals at green conference
16th July 2012 · 0 Comments
By Susan Buchanan
Last week, earth-conscious representatives from the U.S., Mexico and Canada gathered in New Orleans at a conference on resilient communities, sponsored by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. The CEC, a product of the North American Free Trade Agreement, held two days of workshops, followed by Wednesday’s ministers’ meeting—which was open to the public.
A number of Louisianians attended, and the theme of resilience or withstanding adversity didn’t sit well with some locals, who said the state had suffered unnecessarily from oil-and-gas greed and the mistakes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.What exactly upset attendees from Louisiana? After a panel on Monday, Elizabeth Cook, a political and environmental activist based in New Orleans, said in a question-and-answer session “we wouldn’t have to be resilient if the multinationals would stop dumping their poisons in our communities.” She added “we want to thrive. We don’t want to be resilient.” The 2010 BP spill was one in a string of industrial accidents, explosions and leaks that have threatened residents.
At Wednesday’s Council meeting, the CEC’s national leaders—U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, Mexican Secretary for the Environment Juan Elvira Quesada and Canada’s Environmental Minister Peter Kent—did in fact advocate more than just hanging in there. Jackson, a New Orleans native, noted that the three NAFTA countries are capitalist and urged companies in North America to look beyond short-term profits and quarterly earnings. As for the U.S., she said “we need to build our country, our economy to last.”
Jackson said some companies already understand the importance of sustainability and others need to make a real commitment to it. A sustainable community manages its resources adequately so that it doesn’t collapse. Jackson said “a generation of young people coming up more or less get it,” and that makes her optimistic. But she also said “there’s work left to do on environmental justice issues”—when vulnerable populations aren’t protected from pollution. She said certain urban, rural and border communities, along with America’s tribal nations, remain at risk.
Much of the conference was about preparing for climate change. Speaking at a workshop on Tuesday, Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans, said climate change is inevitable, and some groups will benefit from polices intended to address global warming while others will be harmed. During the 2011 Mississippi River flood, government officials allowed certain communities to be inundated so others could be saved, she noted.
More government recovery dollars went to white than Black districts in New Orleans after Katrina though Black districts were harder hit, Wright said. “Uptown, the Tulane area and downtown look better now than they did before the storm. It’s a new world there.” Meanwhile, New Orleans East, which is home to many African-American residents but isn’t poor with an average income of $59,000 a year, missed out, she noted. “It’s a food desert with only one grocery store and no hospital.”
At a workshop on Monday, Maureen Lichtveld, Freeport McMoRan chair of environmental policy at Tulane, called New Orleans the most resilient city in the United States following a series of hurricanes, tropical storms and the BP spill. She differentiated between weather-related and technological disasters, and said Katrina’s causes were both natural and technological while the BP spill was technological. Technological disasters are unexpected and characterized by a loss of control, no particular low point in the event and their long-lasting effects, Lichtveld said. A community’s resources determine how quickly it bounces back, she said, and noted that Gulf Coast communities are recovering from Katrina at differing rates.
Lichtveld also said “ if we can help the most vulnerable, we can help everyone” following a disaster.
From a grant awarded last moth, Lichtveld is the director of a new $15 million program setting up a network of environmental health experts to help doctors along the Gulf. That grant, funded from BP’s settlement of class-action medical claims, drew some comments in the Q&A at the end of Lichtveld’s talk. New Orleans activist Jay Arena, who is an assistant professor at the City University of New York, said he’s concerned about corporate conflicts of interest in environmental research. He asked Lichtveld from the audience if she will give up her affiliation with Freeport McMoRan but got no response. Arena said he wonders if that affiliation will compromise her research.
Outside of the conference, Arena said “resilience has become a buzzword recently,” used by officials and academics when they discuss the good that came out of disasters like Katrina, the BP spill and 9/11.
Some conference attendees said communities may be resilient but that doesn’t mean that oil and gas companies should be allowed to pollute Louisiana and endanger public health. In an example of corporations ignoring communities, activist Cook said “Corexit was sprayed from planes in Plaquemines Parish last week, without notifying the parish.” When the parish questioned the U.S. Coast Guard, it was told that the fishermen who said they were sprayed with something that made their skin burn might have been exposed instead to an algae bloom in the water. The Coast Guard told the parish that in a recent spraying drill the Marine Spill Response Corp., a non-profit petroleum industry group, had only used water.
Cook also said “the academic community has been very quiet about the Corexit issue all along.” And from the audience she said to Lichtveld “that’s why you got the government grant,” implying that Tulane’s silence worked in its favor. In addition to Tulane’s $15 million grant, Lichtveld also received a $3.7 million grant from The Baton Rouge Area Foundation in January for a project evaluating seafood consumption patterns and environmental threats to seafood.
Bennie Hayden, African-American president of Marketing for Green, LLC in Michigan, said Detroit, not New Orleans, is the most resilient city. Detroit is seeing a resurgence, partly because of corporate investments, and the city will benefit from a bridge that’s being built to connect it with Windsor, Canada, he said.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, Anne Rolfes, founding director of the nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade or LBB, submitted a written question asking what residents can do about the state’s defiance of environmental laws. She said “we needed federal intervention to enforce civil rights laws in the 1960s, and we need it now to enforce environmental laws.”
Jackson responded, saying the EPA’s policy is to work with states and hold them accountable. “My hope is we will do our job with the state. Legal processes exist, and at the end of the day the EPA’s job is to ensure a level playing field and no rewards for bad acting.”
The LBB and the Washington, DC- based Environmental Integrity Project coauthored letters last December and again in May of this year, asking EPA to revoke the Louisiana Dept. of Environment Quality’s authority to manage the Clean Air Act program—because of frequent, petrochemical plant accidents.
Meanwhile, the LBB was awarded a $200,000 grant in February by the CEC for citizen air-quality monitoring near the Calumet oil refinery outside of Shreveport.
The Gulf Restoration Network, based in New Orleans, submitted a question to Jackson asking about money that will be available to Gulf states from Clean Water Act penalties against BP. Jackson said those fines should be between $5 billion and $20 billion. Fines can be anywhere from $1,000 to $4,300 per barrel leaked. In late June, Congress passed the RESTORE ACT, which will direct 80 percent of BP’s CWA fines to Gulf states.
“We’re waiting for BP to make it right under the CWA,” Jackson said. “We have all the tools in place and we’re waiting for resources from BP.”
Thirty-five percent of the RESTORE Act money available to the Gulf will be divided equally between Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas for restoration and economic projects. Another 60 percent will be disbursed by a newly created Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.
Louisianians worry about their houses being swallowed by Gulf water as the coast shrinks or sinking because of subsidence. In northern Canada, indigenous residents are watching their homes crack and sink as underlying permafrost melts, according to Madeleine Redfern, mayor of the Canadian town of Iqaluit. She spoke at a panel on Monday
The CEC is composed of three bodies—a Council representing governments of the member countries; a Joint Public Advisory Committee or JPAC, advising the Council and serving as a liaison with the public; and a Secretariat, providing support for the the Council and JPAC and preparing independent reports. To learn more about the CEC, its projects and grants, visit www.cec.org.
Jackson called the three-day event a great first attempt by the CEC at a town hall meeting. She thanked her hometown for being host and praised the city for its “bravery based on love of place.” She said a little jazz and a second line can go a long way to solving the world’s problems and said she’d borrowed those words from local clarinetist Dr. Michel White.
This article was originally published in the July 16, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper