A few slabs of brick wall are all that remains of the De la Ronde mansion. Pieces of rusted iron fence are broken and lying on the ground. A bent sign along the St. Bernard Highway announces this as a site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. The major conflict here is nearly two centuries old. Somehow, that fact makes De la Ronde seem like an oasis.
St. Bernard Parish is now a different type of battlefield: This is the site of one of Katrina's greatest environmental calamities: at Murphy Oil, the storm reportedly pushed an oil tank off its base and moved it about 15 feet. According to official estimates, 800,000 gallons of oil poured out. In the days following Katrina, parish president Henry "Junior" Rodriguez compared St. Bernard to Love Canal, referring to the infamous New York state landfill.
Environmental catastrophe is not new to St. Bernard. For years, residents have fought to raise awareness of what they call industry-related health problems. Earlier this year, a group called St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality won two court battles against ExxonMobil, which operates the Chalmette Refinery, for violating the Clean Air Act.
Given past events, St. Bernard Parish wonders if it can trust Murphy Oil, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
In 2002, EPA investigator Hugh Kaufman accused the federal agency of deliberately under-testing in New York City after 9/11. "I believe EPA did not do that because they knew it would come up not safe and so they are involved in providing knowingly false information to the public about safety," Kaufman said in a hearing. "Not just EPA, the state and the city, too. We had testimonies that all the agencies -- local, state and federal -- have been consorting together every week to discuss these issues."
Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, thinks that conditions are right for the EPA to similarly neglect its duties in Chalmette and across New Orleans. Industry wants to protect itself from lawsuits. So with city governments and its citizens desperate to rebuild neighborhoods and schools, the question becomes: What can the people do to protect themselves and their families?
Through her work with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Rolfes teaches people living in the "fenceline" communities that border petrochemical facilities how to monitor their own soil and air quality. The Bucket Brigade helped citizens in the Diamond community of Norco successfully fight Shell Oil.
In recent years, the group turned its attention to St. Bernard Parish and the Chalmette Refinery, which occupies the old Kaiser Aluminum plant on St. Bernard Highway. Rolfes and the Bucket Brigade now face one of their biggest challenges to date: assisting residents whose homes were among the hardest hit by the floodwaters and the Murphy Oil spill.
Rolfes is driving to St. Bernard one October day; in her back seat is a large bazooka that could have been used in the movie Ghostbusters. Called the UV Hound Multi Gas Analyzer, it costs $16,000, and it's on loan. The simple explanation of how it works: it shoots a beam of ultra-violet light, which is absorbed in different ways by certain chemicals. You can measure the air quality immediately.
"It won't get the mold but it will catch what's coming out of the refineries," she says.
Rolfes is here to hand off the UV Hound to local environmentalists. She's also planning to attend what she hears will be a parish-wide town hall meeting that has been called for 10 a.m. this morning in Chalmette. No environmentalists have been invited to speak, so Rolfes wants to pass out a stack of Bucket Brigade flyers. She starts the tour in the neighborhood that runs alongside the Chalmette Refinery.
There are 14 sites where the Bucket Brigade is taking soil samples, starting at the home of Ken Ford, the president of St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality. Around the corner is Rowley Elementary School.
Dotting intersections all over the parish are signs that list phone numbers: Call to sue Murphy. Rolfes is still checking them out. She wonders aloud if some of these numbers might lead to the oil company itself. The conditions are right for a cheap land grab, she says. She's seen this sort of thing before.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade isn't suggesting that people stay or move, she says. As always, the goal is to arm residents with information. So far, she says, the EPA has failed its primary mission: to get the word out about any hazards. "If you ask people in this parish, 'Do you know anything about sampling?' they're going to say no."
She pulls up along a canal, where the only signs of life in the neighborhood surrounding Jacob Drive are workers in red jumpsuits. Rows of vacuum hoses snake across the waterway. Trucks display the logo of Garner Environmental Services, Inc. Rolfes speculates on the motive for the cleanup. Are they improving the neighborhood, or are they destroying evidence? She gets out and starts taking pictures. She's shooed back to her car.
"Who knows what those guys are doing?" Rolfes says as she starts driving away. "Actually, I'm going to ask them." She turns around. Back at the canal, she rolls down the window. "Who contracted you?" she asks.
A man in a jumpsuit answers. "Murphy," he says, then turns back to his work.
When Rolfes pulls up to the council chambers, the St. Bernard meeting is already underway. A crowd of about a thousand people is pushing into the chambers, now a dusty concrete auditorium. The doors and windows are all removed. Some residents stand on the empty window frames, cupping their ears to hear.