Katrina, Five Years Later

08/31/2010 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

President Obama returned to New Orleans for the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, to a region still reeling from the Macondo oil gusher and from Katrina's legacy. The president reminded us  that Katrina "was a natural disaster, but also a man-made catastrophe, a shameful breakdown in government." He lauded the resilience of the people of the city and committed his administration to  "stand with you and fight alongside you until the job is done."

What the president did not admit is that the fight is not just with nature -- nor even just with irresponsible oil companies. The biggest part of the problem, and one that hasn't even begun to be addressed is the political leadership of the Gulf Coast.

Indeed, the region's established political powers have continued to make war on their own citizens, and particularly on New Orleans. They seem determined to retain, and even escalate, the Gulf Coast's status as America's Niger Delta, a national sacrifice area devoted to the interests of oil. The most stunning evidence came in an investigative report from Newsweek  that documented that of $5.9 billion in bonds issued by the state of Louisiana since Katrina, New Orleans has received less than one percent -- and areas like the Lower Ninth Ward have received nothing.

By contrast, $1.7 billion of the bonds went to the oil industry, with a whopping $1 billion for a Marathon Oil Company refinery that wasn't even particularly damaged. Exxon-Mobil is poised to get $300 million for its Baton Rouge facilities. These "GO bonds" are subsidized by the federal government -- so money that the American people intended to help the victims of Katrina is going, instead, to the same industry whose practices contributed so much to the destruction of wetlands, which is what made Katrina so devastating. As far as I can tell, no one has asked Governor Jindal to explain these priorities. And Jindal certainly doesn't highlight them in his blog.  But Jindal is not alone in putting the oil industry ahead of the citizens he represents.

Senator Mary Landrieu found the fifth anniversary a fitting moment to suggest that the nation should let bygones be bygones and allow the oil industry to resume exactly the same drilling practices that led to the BP catastrophe, even as the New York Times documented that the industry has not even begun to get a handle on the enormous risks posed by its new, deep-drilling approaches.  Ironically, the rig used by the Times story to make its point is named "Perdido," which means lost (as in damned), incorrigible, in trouble, done for.

Immediately after Katrina, there was a major environmental and health threat on the Gulf -- debris and toxic materials were incinerated or dumped in improperly designed landfills, many in low-income and ethnic communities.

Five years later, the Gulf Coast faces the challenge of disposing of another enormous legacy of toxic materials and waste -- and what is happening? There are still too few safely designed, properly sited facilities to handle the hazardous waste generated by the region's oil industry. Instead,  waste from the oil cleanup is once again going to inadequately designed landfills, including ones currently under investigation for already leaking and causing water-pollution problems.

And exactly what lessons did BP learn on April 20 when its Deepwater Horizon rig exploded? Did it make a serious commitment to "Make it Right" as its glossy ad campaign suggests? Not based on the evidence from its Texas City Refinery, a poster child for what is wrong with the company, the site of an infamous 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and led the company to pay a record $50 million fines. Fast forward to this year. In early April, critical equipment broke down at the refinery. At least 538,000 pounds of toxic gasses, including 17,000 pounds of the potent carcinogen benzene, began pouring out into the air.

BP could have shut down the refinery and made the necessary repairs. It didn't. Instead, it simply diverted as much of the pollution as it could to a flare to be burned off and let the rest escape into the surrounding community. It didn't tell the public. It didn't even fully inform the state of Texas. It just let the pollution continue for 40 days while the world was transfixed by the other catastrophe BP had created in the Gulf. Even while it ran ads saying "make it right," it was intentionally allowing a toxic catastrophe, over which it had complete control, to continue. As a result, hundreds of local residents were exposed to completely preventable health risks. Many of those residents believe that they and their families suffered severe damage as a result, and BP now faces $10 billion in potential legal liability for this release, on top of the litigation it faces over the gusher.

The simple, sad fact is that the biggest obstacle facing Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus' efforts to restore the Gulf Coast is that the region is still governed, not as a democracy, but as a colonial appendage of the oil industry.