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New Orleans' Citizens Battle Industrial Polluters

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release April 12, 2007

New Orleans' St. Bernard Parish Citizens Battle Industrial Polluters in Flood-Ravaged City

Interview with Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Bridgade, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio:

St. Bernard Parish, which lies just east of New Orleans, was more heavily flooded than any other area by the breach of the levees, destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Before Katrina hit, 200 families had formed a group, called "St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality," that fought to force the oil refineries and other polluting industries, that abut residential areas, to clean up the worst of their toxic air emissions. Chalmette, at the eastern edge of the strip of refineries along the Mississippi River west to Baton Rouge, is known as "Cancer Alley." Anne Rolfes founded the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in 1999 to help St. Bernard residents pinpoint the source and identify the chemical makeup of toxic releases.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Rolfes one afternoon in early April in a decimated neighborhood across the street from the St. Bernard Parish Exxon refinery. She explains how the Bucket Brigrade works, and how the St. Bernard citizens group, much reduced in numbers after Katrina, is still battling to get Exxon and other refineries to clean up their pollution.

ANNE ROLFES: This neighborhood is right next to an Exxon Mobil oil refinery and there are always terrible odors in the neighborhood from the refinery, and theyre not just benign smells theyre chemicals that have real impacts on somebodys health. We pull the air into this bag, which is a non-reactive plastic, and then send the bag off to a lab in California to get the analysis. Its a powerful tool because people can document what was actually in the air. You dont have to say, It smelled bad last week. You can say, You violated the state benzene standard by ten times. And its good when we match this up with our odor logs, we have a record of people who are complaining about a problem from the refinery with some real documentation, so its the best of both worlds.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you find is in the air when people are complaining?

ANNE ROLFES: Sulfur dioxide, oftentime.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is that the rotten egg smell?

ANNE ROLFES: Yeah, thats sulfur dioxide and its a respiratory irritant. Its not just some harmless odor; it actually can trigger an asthma attack. And older people and children are especially vulnerable to it. And its been a concern for us for a long time because this refinery is right next to an elementary school. Ive been here where the track coaches are having the kids run, as fast as they can, at the same time were picking up readings of sulfur dioxide. So what it means is that the children are running, breathing in really, really deeply, huffing and puffing, and absorbing all the more sulfur dioxide. Before the storm it was C.F. Rowley School. Its been closed and I think theyre going to reopen it. Before the storm, a teacher had called us to get a bucket so they could take air samples. I brought it to her and we had a training session, and the next day she called and asked me to take it back because her principal didnt want her to have it. It turns out that the school gets money from Exxon for

BETWEEN THE LINES: When these tests come back showing that there was elevated levels of benzene or whatever, and youre able to show it correlates with the odor logs, have you been able to get the governmental powers that be to hold the industry responsible, or the particular polluting entity responsible? Do they clean up or do they get fined?

ANNE ROLFES: No, the government doesnt do anything. The [state] Department of Environmental Quality doesnt do anything, and the Environmental Protection Agency doesnt do anything. Theres no question about it people are absolutely left to their own devices. And so what we do is go after the company. We, of course, always send copies of things to the regulators. Okay, let me give you an example. We filed a citizens enforcement suit against Exxon Mobil saying, You are violating the law. We are suing you because the regulators arent enforcing the law.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is that legal for you to do?

ANNE ROLFES: Well sure, we wouldnt have wasted our time. The Clean Air Act has a provision that says when the government isnt doing its job and not enforcing, then citizens can sue. What we did was very, very simple. We went into the files of the Dept. of Environmental Quality and pulled out all the accident reports that Exxon had filed. By law they have to write a letter every time they have an accident. So, over the course of several years, they were averaging one accident every six days in some cases. So we took this information, went to court, Exxon was found guilty of violating the Clean Air Act on over 2,500 separate occasions.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And just to be clear, when you say accident, you mean the release of something into the air thats beyond the allowable limit?

ANNE ROLFES: Exactly. And this information has been in the files of the EPA and DEQ for years and theyve never done anything about it never. We had a similar lawsuit on a different refinery. And you could go up and down the Mississippi River and find these situations. Theyre absolutely not enforcing the law. This campaign this Exxon one has not been easy and its not going to be easy. But were going to get what we want. Its a matter of time; they will come to the table. They may not want to do it now, but by refusing to do what the residents want, theyre just really driving people to different measures and measures that are more harmful to Exxon. So, its unfortunate. A lot of what were advocating for would really help them, but they cant hear it, they wont hear it, to their detriment.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And how would it help them?

ANNE ROLFES: Well, for example, these air monitors we want them to put up would help them understand a small release while it is still small, before it becomes some big accident. What does that mean? It means they keep their product in their plant and sell it for a profit instead of spilling it into the community, losing their profit, and making people sick at the same time.

Contact the Louisiana Bucket Brigade at (504) 522-0500 or visit their website at


Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending April 20, 2007. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo

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