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 Council or ministers' meeting -- which was open to the public.
A number of Louisianans attended, and the theme of resilience or withstanding adversity didn't sit well with some of them, 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 Louisiana 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," regarding vulnerable populations that 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. Some groups will benefit from polices intended to address global warming while others will be harmed, she said. During the 2011 Mississippi River flood, government officials allowed certain communities to be inundated so others could be saved.
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 Americans 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 University, said New Orleans is the most resilient U.S. city following a series of hurricanes, tropical storms and the BP spill. Katrina and its aftermath were a natural and technological disaster while the BP spill was technologically rooted. Technological disasters are unexpected and characterized by a loss of control, no particular low point in the event and their long-lasting effects, she said. A community's resources determine how quickly it bounces back from disaster, she said.
Lichtveld also said, "If we can help the most vulnerable, we can help everyone" after a disaster.
From a grant awarded last month, Lichtveld is the director of a new $15 million effort to build a network of environmental health experts to help doctors along the Gulf. The 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. Jay Arena, a New Orleans activist and 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 and endanger public health. In an example of corporations ignoring communities, activist Cook said the dispersant "Corexit was sprayed from planes in Plaquemines Parish last week, without notifying the parish." When the Louisiana parish questioned the U.S. Coast Guard, it was told that fishermen who said something made their skin burn might have been exposed to an algae bloom in the water. The Coast Guard told the parish that the Marine Spill Response Corp., a non-profit petroleum industry group, had only used water in a June spraying drill.
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 new bridge that will be built between it and Windsor, Canada, he said.
At Wednesday's Council meeting, Anne Rolfes, founding director of the nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade or LBB, submitted a 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, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project coauthored letters last December and 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 CEC awarded the LBB a $200,000 grant in February for citizen air-quality monitoring near the Calumet oil refinery outside of Shreveport, La.
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 could be anywhere from $5 billion to $20 billion. 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."
Louisianans worry about their houses sinking as the ground settles or being swallowed by the Gulf as the coast shrinks. 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 made up of a Council, a Secretariat and a Joint Public Advisory Committee. 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 of New Orleans for being host and praised the city for its "bravery based on love of place." Borrowing words from local clarinetist Dr. Michel White, she said a little jazz and a second line -- a music-and-dance march -- can go a long way to solving the world's problems.
(This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the July 16, 2012 issue.)