Cover Story

Test Patterns

Thanks to Lafayette native Anne Rolfes and the environmental group The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, residents in St. Bernard Parish don't have to trust the EPA.

Anne Rolfes grew up in Lafayette's Bendel Gardens neighborhood, right around the corner from the Oil Center. As a teenager, she felt the allure of the social scene at the Petroleum Club. After graduating from St. Thomas More, she earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Then she joined the Peace Corps.

"Even though I grew up close to [Baton Rouge] and Cancer Alley, my view was from all the people who profited from it," she says by phone from her temporary office in Baton Rouge. "It wasn't until I went to West Africa that I realized there was a real human cost to oil production. When I was in Nigeria, I saw oil spills on people's property, and people were getting killed because they didn't want pipelines on their property. When I saw people getting abused that way, I couldn't stand it. And then I realized there were a lot of problems in my home state, too."

After returning to Louisiana, Rolfes moved to New Orleans and founded the non-profit organization the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. The Bucket Brigade teaches people living in the "fenceline" communities that border petrochemical facilities how to monitor their own soil and air quality. The Bucket Brigade helped residents in the Diamond, La., community of Norco successfully fight Shell Oil.

Her occupation makes for some occasionally awkward social moments when she regularly returns to Lafayette and bumps into oil industry workers, but 37-year-old Rolfes doesn't view the Bucket Brigade as an adversary to the oil companies or its employees. "I think my background gives me a voice in this work, because these people are good people, and they don't want to do any harm," she says. "But often the oil is not being drilled or refined in a responsible way. We might cut into profit, but it also means someone won't get cancer."

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: the group is assisting St. Bernard Parish residents whose homes were among the hardest hit by the flood waters ' and a massive Murphy Oil spill ' during Hurricane Katrina.

A few slabs of brick wall are all that remain 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.

Surrounding the ruins are reminders of the more recent struggle. Across the highway is Lehrmann's bar, which served as an impromptu shelter for residents who didn't get out in time. Down the road is Rocky and Carlo's restaurant, once known for serving the best baked macaroni and cheese in town; inside, the diner is now gutted and empty except for three busted video poker machines.

The towns that dot coastal St. Bernard Parish are most renowned for seafood production. Each one has its own signature fair to celebrate oysters, shrimp and crawfish. Each also is known for its distinct culture. In St. Bernard, the historic mixture of French, Italian, Irish and German ancestries gives natives an accent that is often compared to that of Brooklyn.

When Hurricane Katrina veered east of New Orleans, it hit this region dead-on. Homes are decimated, and many of the storm's most horrific moments occurred here. At St. Rita's Nursing Home, 34 residents died. Many were bedridden and helpless as the waters rose up around them. At Beauregard Middle School, 14 pet dogs were found slaughtered. And 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 residents wonder if they 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 undertesting 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."

Rolfes thinks that conditions are right for EPA to similarly neglect its duties in Chalmette and across New Orleans. Industry wants to protect itself from lawsuits. City governments are eager to bring residents back into the city to work and pay taxes. People desperately want to rebuild neighborhoods and schools. So what can citizens do to protect themselves and their families?

One answer looks sort of like a large bazooka that could have been used in the movie Ghostbusters, and it's currently sitting in the backseat of Rolfe's car. The UV Hound Multi Gas Analyzer 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 has driven to St. Bernard to tour the fenceline neighborhoods and hand off the UV Hound to locals. She's also planning to attend 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 Anne wants to pass out a stack of Bucket Brigade flyers.

She starts the tour in the neighborhood that runs alongside the Chalmette Refinery. Houses here are wrecked. Some bear the phone numbers of their owners, scrawled across the front wall. Vehicles are piled on top of each other, or are resting, extraordinarily, across the tops of chain-link fences.

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. Rolfes points to a playground slide, another sample site.

The next stop is Jacob Drive, a block from Murphy Oil. It's even worse off than the area around Ken Ford's house. Dried, cracked mud covers the neighborhood. It forms a tile over the ground, the street, everywhere you walk. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the dried mud is sandy-colored, giving that region the appearance of a drought. Here, the dirt is much darker, the color of charcoal.

Instead of the familiar dirty bath ring in other flooded areas, the buildings here seem smeared with ink that has dripped down the walls. "Thanks FEMA Murphy Oil Bush Brown," reads one garage door. "You work fast." An arrow points to the dark ground.

Dotting intersections all over the parish are signs that list phone numbers. Call if you want to sue Murphy. Anne 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.

Louisiana Bucket Brigade isn't suggesting that people stay or move, Rolfes 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. Rolfes takes another picture.

Ken Ford is waiting for Rolfes on the grounds of a multi-building government complex in Chalmette. Some buildings are already gutted and surrounded by police tape. Nearby, a Wal-Mart parking lot has been turned into a disaster relief center that provides hot meals, groceries and medical help. In the other direction, across a bleached field, a roar of voices suddenly erupts. The St. Bernard meeting is under way.

A crowd of about a thousand people is pushing into the council 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. At these outer edges of the crowd, you can discern only a few random words coming from inside. Then there's a faint, rhythmic murmur.

"We can't hear!" screams a woman in the back, standing on an ice chest.

"Shut up!" answers a voice from inside. "We're saying the pledge!"

There are a few figures on a stage, mostly men in shirt-sleeves and ties. Sheriff's deputies line the walls. On the floor below is a folding chair and a microphone. It's not a town hall meeting. It's a hearing. The man at the table is state Sen. Walter Boasso, a Republican from the nearby town of Arabi. When the pledge is finished, he begins the work of the day: querying various officials about the emergency response after Katrina and the current state of the parish.

His voice is carried from a microphone through two small speakers that are being held by assistants at the sides of the stage. The words are tinny and garbled. Hundreds of people press forward from the back to hear. More shouts are heard from those who are out of earshot.

"We lost our tax base here in St Bernard Parish," one man in a suit tells the senator. More shouts come from the audience. "These people have lost everything they have," says a woman in a red pantsuit.

The state senator announces that this meeting is scheduled to go on for eight hours. People start to shout louder. "We want answers!" says someone.

A bulky man with thick, white hair stands up at the front. He's the parish president, Junior Rodriguez. He's been called to testify. But before speaking, he lifts up a gold-capped cane and slams it down on the table in front of him. "Goddamn it, shut up!" he bellows at the crowd.

There's a hush, but it doesn't last long. The voices in the back start to rise again. Officials take their turns testifying. Each speaker sits in the folding chair with his back to the thousand residents. Congressional aides sit at the table, typing into laptops. They resemble the blank-faced government bureaucrats of The X-Files. Only a few phrases are audible over the loudspeakers:

"All of our lives are at stake...."

"You can never talk to the same person twice...."

"Loan us money? It's a damn slap in the face to loan us money...."

One woman on the edge of the crowd says she's lived in St. Bernard all her life. She came in from Dallas for this meeting. Now she's turning around and going back. "I need some information," she says. "I'm not going to get it here."

"I drove from Mississippi for a meeting that doesn't exist," says another.

When Council Chairman Joey DiFatta gives his testimony, he's the first speaker who can be heard over the din. Sweat pouring down his face, he demands answers about Murphy, the oil spill, the hot zones and levee repairs. "To rebuild our houses and not protect them is stupid," he says. "And we don't want to be stupid." The crowd cheers in agreement.

The councilman goes on. He's heard from EPA about the short term. He wants to know about the long term. "That's living in the home, that's staying in the community, working in the community, for the next 10 to 20 years. I need to know: What is that going to do to our people? ... I need you guys, and I think you can do it, to get DEQ to shake that tree and get some answers."

When most residents realize they'll have no opportunity to speak or ask questions, they start to trickle out of the chamber. By 11 a.m., the crowd has already grown weary of hearing politicians speak over cheap microphones to each other. The room is now only half full. Outside, on a strip of dusty, burnt grass just outside the council chambers, parish officials are holding forth with their constituents. St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens is being grilled by two women. A cluster of deputies is positioned behind him.

"All these companies are promising to employ all these sorts of people, and so far, I don't see all those people working," he says. "This thing has been a failure from the first day of the hurricane. They left us to drown like rats."

One of the women nods her head. "Where can we complain about that?"

"The press was saying we haven't heard from St. Bernard," he says. "Well, four days after having been hit by a Category 5 storm, if you haven't heard from us, you ought to suspect that we're not doing that hot." He is echoing the much-held belief that the hurricane hit St. Bernard Parish as a Cat 5.

"See these guys?" The sheriff points to his deputies, who stand silently behind him. "I got a payroll on the 20th, and I don't know how I'm going to pay them. Their families are in school in North Carolina and Georgia and Texas; they're working 14 hours a day, and at the end of the pay period, I don't know if I can pay them."

Council Chairman DiFatta comes outside. When I ask about the Bucket Brigade and people monitoring the environment themselves, he says it's a good idea. "We learned that early on, if you want to save St. Bernard, St. Bernard had to do it for themselves," he says. But he doesn't seem to know the sampling is already happening.

And what about the belief held by St. Bernard residents that they were ignored during the hurricane, and are still being ignored in the rebuilding process? It's a sore subject.

"If you say Chalmette's in peril, or you say Toca or Shell Beach is in peril, nobody knows where the hell that's at," he says. "But you say New Orleans is in peril; everybody around the world knows where New Orleans is. So that's what happened; we fell in the shadow of New Orleans, but let me tell these people, we're more important because we produce the seafood and we produce the oil and we produce the natural gas. Let them get that from the city that care forgot.

"The federal government, the EPA, the state government, nobody's answering questions," he continues. "If they want us to die on the vine, tell us, we'll go away. But if they don't, give us the answers so we can rebuild this damn community."

Parish President Rodriguez walks through the crowd, on his way to the parking lot. He holds his cane in front of him, not really using it to walk. "Are you getting the information from Murphy Oil, from the EPA, the DEQ, that you need?" I ask.

"No, I don't think they're giving us information. I got to be a little leery of it, suspicious you might say. Not that I want to be, but it's in the best interest of the parish residents that I make sure that they give us the correct information."

"How do you ensure that?"

"Well, EPA is going to be the final judgment on that. Murphy's been very nice to us, they've worked with us, always have."

"Do you trust EPA to give you the right data?"

"Well, let's put it this way. That's their job. If they don't do it, then there's nothing that I can do about it."

"Early on, you had said that St. Bernard could be another Love Canal. Do you still believe that?"

"At the time, that's actually what we thought. But obviously, from what we understand right now, it's not that bad. But when I hear from EPA, I'm going to believe it."

"Have you heard from any local environmental groups?"

"I just heard from one of them that said he wanted to talk to me, that was Mr. Ford, and I haven't had time to stop and talk with him."

The St. Bernard meeting has recessed for lunch. Ken Ford is talking with a group that includes Kim Manning, a St. Bernard native who's on Sen. Walter Boasso's staff. She describes a map on the wall of the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness. The map stopped at Chalmette, she says. "No, people, there's homes, there's families down below," she told them in the days following the storm. "There's Violet, there's Meraux, it keeps going on. They're like, 'What do you mean? That's just the Gulf.' I said, 'You better get a bigger map because there's lot of people under that.'"

The St. Bernard environmentalists join the line at a Red Cross trailer to receive a plate of barbecued beef, green beans and canned peaches. In addition to Ford and his wife, Genevieve, there's Joy Lewis. They're all in their mid-60s, and they're all old friends. Most members of his group are retirees who have time to mess with this sort of thing, Ken says.

They admit that their children are mad at all of them. Mad that they're coming in, mad that they're going into their property. The kids call them several times a day to check up on them. "My daughter tells me all the time, 'Mama, I don't want you and my daddy to die with some kind of infection or something,'" Lewis says. "She calls me three or four times a day when I'm over here. She's concerned."

But Joy's husband, Johnny, is back at their house now, trying to salvage anything he can find from their 50 years of marriage. Their anniversary was Sept. 2, and their daughter was planning a party for them in her two-month-old, three-story St. Bernard house.

Instead, that Friday, like every day since, Joy Lewis has been trying to find the body of her mother, a resident at St. Rita. She says she had left her mother behind because she knew the nursing home had an evacuation plan. Her mom had a blood clot; she didn't want to jeopardize her health by taking her out of the home.

"When I found out a Category 5 hit us, I got really upset. My mother was 92, and she had all her faculties, and I can just imagine her being so afraid, hearing the wind and feeling the water. It upsets me. So I gave them all the information they needed, and I'm still looking for her. For almost seven weeks."

Joy is taking it one day at a time. She's not ready to talk about lawsuits. "I want to find my mother," she says. "I'm not interested in anything else right now."

There's also not much talk yet of their flooded homes, of selling, of bulldozing. First, they need information. The kind of information they've ended up having to provide for themselves.

The three friends admit that many people in the parish won't talk to them because of their environmental work. ExxonMobil and Murphy are major employers of St. Bernard residents. Before Katrina, St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality might have gotten a handful of people to show up at its meetings. They say that business owners wouldn't let them use their property, for fear of losing revenue. They didn't give up then, and they say they're not giving up now.

But it gets to you, Joy says. "I was in Betsy and had five feet of water in my house. After Betsy, we swept it out, we hosed it out, we rebuilt and we came back. But this time, it's over my ceiling, and my ceiling fell, and all the goop. My husband's 69 years old, and I'm 65. It's not easy. And I have an immune problem. It's a big mess.

"You can't stop," she adds. "You got to do it or die."

Ford hasn't touched his lunch. I ask him if he's going to take the UV Hound out into the parish this afternoon. "I'm going to do what I can do," he says. "I got health problems, I got one lung. I can't do too much."

"How did you lose that lung?"

"Cancer. Took my left lung out."

"Do you wonder if it's related to living in this area?"

"I hate to say that."

"But you wonder about it?"

"I wonder because there are 17 people on my street either died from cancer, died with cancer or have cancer right now."

Nobody in St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality says they're out to raise hell. They're fiercely patriotic and keep saying that they're glad this happened in America, where people will help them. Recently, when the parish hired an environmental expert, Ken Ford thought his job was done. The expert was laid off after the storm.

"When you retire, you got time to study," Ford says. "You're sitting around in your yard, and you're going, 'Wait a minute. Who's not doing what? Is that something new?' Everybody thinks that the next person who's supposed to be doing his job is doing it. But then you find out."

On Murphy Oil's Web site, company president W. Michael Hulse has posted an open letter to St. Bernard Parish residents. It states that all its employees are safe. "On a less positive note, as many of you know, the storm damaged one of our storage tanks which leaked oil into some of the areas surrounding the refinery," the letter says. "At the moment it is our understanding that all final determinations about the safety and habitability and future of property in St. Bernard Parish have to be made by local, state and federal governmental agencies." Hulse also announces a $5 million gift to the parish.

When asked why she's suspicious of those agencies, Rolfes pulls out a Sept. 17 joint press release from the EPA and DEQ titled "Air Sampling Data Collected by EPA Mobile Labs Released." A line in the release states, "Monitoring data directly around the Murphy Oil Spill revealed some slightly elevated levels of benzene ...."

Rolfes pulls out a sheet of paper. This one lists the raw data on a chart. The benzene level is 170 parts per billion. That's more than 40 times the state limits. Studies have shown that long-term effects of exposure to benzene include leukemia and anemia.

Outside Wal-Mart, the three friends discuss their plans for the afternoon ' whether to go back to the meeting, take the UV Hound out for sampling, or salvage their homes. They'll leave the parish tonight and go to Mississippi, where they're staying. Then they'll come back soon to do it all over again.

The St. Bernard Parish that they know and love seems a long way away. On a good day, when Ken and Genevieve Ford would invite Johnny and Joy Lewis over to their house, they'd ask Joy to bring along a few lemons from her tree. The lemon tree is dead now. So are the orange and satsuma trees.

When Joy goes to salvage items from her house, she sees the oil embedded in the cracks in her china. She bleaches it, but it's not the same. Now, if Murphy was to offer market value on her house, she's not sure what she'd do.

But that's not today's conversation. They still don't have the information they need. No one does. In St. Bernard, they learned that hard lesson by living on the fence line and taking their own measurements.

"People haven't heard a squeak from the very institutions that are designed to protect us," says Rolfes. "As usual, the entity being left out of it is the people. Transparency is very important, and we're taking the samples and putting out complete results. There's not one other institution that's doing that. Murphy, DEQ and EPA aren't doing that."

Michael Tisserand was the editor of Gambit Weekly and is the author of The Kingdom of Zydeco. Contact him at [email protected]. Additional reporting by Scott Jordan.