Thursday, March 30, 2006

Steelworkers and Environmental Justice Partners Show How to Clean Up Toxic Properties in New Orleans

By Special Correspondant Jim Young

Neighborhood contamination in the wake of Katrina has lingered so long without government intervention that two unusual partners have joined forces to do something about it. On March 23, the United Steelworkers (USW) union and Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) announced the kick-off of A Safe Way Back Home project, an environmental neighborhood clean up and outreach campaign.

The first phase of the project, which ran from March 23-26, removed tainted soil from properties on a ravaged and almost-empty block on Aberdeen Road in New Orleans East. The contaminated dirt was taken away by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Sidewalks, curbs, and streets were pressure washed until all accumulated sediment was removed. Each lot was re-landscaped with graded river sand and fresh sod.

Participants included residents, college students and Steelworkers who have received certificate training in Hazardous Materials handling in programs funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

“This demonstration project serves as a catalyst for a series of activities that will attempt to reclaim the New Orleans East community following the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, it is the government’s responsibility to provide the resources required to address areas of environmental concern and to assure that the workforce is protected,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, DSCEJ’s executive director.

“FEMA should replicate this demonstration project on thousands of blocks in hundreds of neighborhoods across the City of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region,” added United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard. “Only the federal government has the resources and authority to lead such a massive undertaking. But it has to be done. The human dignity and economic security of the people of the Gulf Coast depends on it.”

Both the USW and DSCEJ say FEMA should allocate a portion of the billions of dollars recently appropriated by Congress to clean up environmental contaminants in the region. They maintain the agency should provide the work force and materials necessary to complete the remediation. And it should sponsor and fund the NIEHS Hazardous Waste Worker Training Program and Minority Worker Training Program as models for educating cleanup workers about how to identify, control and prevent numerous potential health hazards.

DSCEJ and USW launched A Safe Way Back Home following an analysis of sediment samples taken by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at two properties on Aberdeen Road. The results showed that all but one sample contained at least one chemical at a higher concentration than the Louisiana Risk Evaluation Corrective Action Program (RECAP) screening levels for residential soil. The analysis was conducted by the firm of Glenrose Engineering, Inc. of Austin Texas.

Chemicals exceeding RECAP standards included:

  • Heavy metals (arsenic, zinc, barium, cadmium). Arsenic levels were greater than 40 times the Region 6 EPA soil cleanup level for residential areas. This level is set at 0.39 milligrams/kilogram (mg/kg) to protect against cancer. The levels also exceeded the state guidelines for clean-up used by Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). This level is set at 12 mg/kg.
  • Diesel range organics. At both sites the levels greatly exceed the state guidelines for clean-up in residential areas used by LDEQ of 650 micrograms/kilogram (ug/kg). At 8750 Aberdeen the level was found to be more than twice the state clean-up level.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (benzo[a]pyrene and benzo[b]fluoranthene). At one site, the level of the cancer-causing PAH Benzo[a]pyrene significantly exceeds the state guidelines for clean-up in residential areas used by LDEQ and EPA of 330 (ug/kg).

These results, when compared to other US EPA data from across the city of New Orleans, appear typical of post-Katrina New Orleans. But that doesn’t make them safe -- they represent both acute and long-term health hazards. (See also an analysis with similar conclusions conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

“There are no acceptable levels of contamination for the thousands of hurricane victims now living in what resembles a sludge pit – no matter what state and federal environmental officials say,” noted Gary Beevers, Director of USW District 13, which encompasses Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas. “The government was doing next to nothing to remedy these hazards, so the Steelworkers felt like we had to step in and take some action.”

A Safe Way Back Home is the product of a strategic partnership between labor, environmental and community organizations. It offers neighborhood residents whose homes were flooded by Hurricane Katrina an opportunity to work with local Steelworkers and environmentalists to take a proactive approach to cleaning up their neighborhoods.

Health and Safety training and equipment was provided to all volunteers before starting the Safe Way Back Home project. The training is supported by grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to Dillard University, home of DSCEJ, and to the Steelworkers’ Tony Mazzocchi Center for Safety, Health & Environmental Education.

“The failure to adequately respond to the devastation caused by Katrina has had disastrous environmental and health consequences,” said Jim Frederick, Assistant Director of the Steelworkers’ Department of Health, Safety and the Environment. “Thousands upon thousands of residents continue to suffer exposures to contaminated soil, unsafe water and toxic mold.”
Frederick said the Steelworkers will continue providing Hazardous Materials training for small and disadvantaged businesses and contractors involved in demolition, debris removal, mold remediation, and clean-up.

More Information:

Analysis: Health risks in Katrina's wake, United Press International March 27, 2006
By Olga PierceUPI Health Business Correspondent

New Orleans Activists Starting From the Ground Up, Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2006, By Ann M. Simmons, Times Staff Writer