10/05/2005 11:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Where There's Smoke, There's Fire

Well, it's begun. Whatever faint hope we might have had that this time our leaders would try to handle the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast right is fading fast. The latest outrage is a decision by Halliburton and other contractors engaged on a no-bid basis to clean up the aftermath to just get rid of debris the way we would have back in the 19th century -- by burning it. Of course, in the 19th century the debris would have been wood and bricks, not complex organic chemicals like PVC, rubber tire laced with cadmium and nickel, even dioxin waste from the DuPont DeLisle plant, which the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality claims in a press releases had "no leaks or releases" from Katrina. How they can even presume to know that before they have had time to do proper sampling?

And even if it was once true, it's not true anymore. Here's some eyewitness reporting from the shameful scene of what is now being done to the people of the Gulf Coast, in our name and with our money, from Mississippi Chapter leader Becky Gillette:

I had an email the other day from a handicapped person with multiple health problems who lives 1.5 miles from the DuPont DeLisle plant regarding open burning at this plant that was smack in the center of the area with the most devastation from Katrina.

"Last Saturday night Dupont was burning their trash, even though there was a burn ban on," she said. "Someone said they had a permit. But Becky, it was bad. The smoke was bad and the smell was worse. It traveled all the way up the Kiln DeLisle Rd. to my house."

Another resident, who lost his DeLisle home to the Katrina flood surge, wrote: "That's not the first time they've been burning stuff. There was a reddish brown smoke and foul odor when I went through there week before last."

Sound Off (an anonymous call-in comment column in the Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.) on its front page today said:

"I live in Saucier, and there is a big burn pile up here that everybody is hauling to. FEMA I guess is paying for it. I think they're burning vinyl, old tires and PVC. It stinks over there, and there are ashes everywhere. This goes on all day long every day, and Sunday. What's going on?"

The smell that is destroying the hope of people on the Gulf Coast is the smell of greed, the smell of money, the smell of incompetence, the smell of arrogance.

It's the same greed and arrogance that led Tom Delay to offer his almost unbelievable "it's not illegal yet" defense yesterday. His reasoning? That back in 2002, when Delay is charged with having laundered money to illegally channel corporate contributions to help seize control of the Texas legislature, it was not yet illegal to conspire to violate the Texas election code. Law professors have been dismissing this claim as a fantasy, but let's assume it has some legs: Delay's best defense is that even if he conspired to violate the election code, such a conspiracy had not yet been made illegal in Texas? "Not yet illegal" can join the ranks of infamous legal ploys, right up there with the "Twinkie defense" used after Dan White assassinated Mayor George Moscone.

Yet "not yet illegal" will be the defense years down the road when the health consequences of this reckless open burning show up. Well, actually Halliburton and Dupont will assert that what they did "was temporarily not illegal" because the State of Mississippi has suspended all its environmental standards, and because the EPA basically opened the door to open burning of toxic chemicals (the agency's "Concept Plan for Ambient Air Monitoring After Hurricane Katrina," dated September 13, 2005, "assumes that some number of fixed open burning facilities are established for disposal of wastes that will not be recycled or disposed of by other means.")

This, of course is the same reckless approach to cleaning up after a disaster that the Bush administration adopted in its official disaster response plans for another terrorist attack after 9/11. A Sierra Club analysis discovered that the Administration had decided that in another terrorist attack it would "waive" cleanup standards otherwise required under federal law, and that devastated communities would be left contaminated forever. We protested at the time that it seemed clinically insane to say that, if terrorists attacked a community, it would not get the same kind of protection and cleanup that would follow a natural disaster. Now it turns out that we hadn't heard the sound of the second shoe dropping. The response to Katrina shows that our government has no intention of protecting communities after they suffer any disaster, whether natural or terrorist.

It's up to us, in solidarity with the people of the Gulf Coast, to make it clear: We are not going to abandon these communities even after the headlines move on to the next story. Whether the issue is toxic waste cleanup or fair wages or safe building standards or wetland and levee restoration, if we are paying to help restore the Gulf Coast, if this is being done in our name and with our money, it must be done in a way that makes us proud -- not ashamed.

What are we going to do about it?