Dirty South Bureau

April 9, 2011

Fukushima on the Gulf Coast: What the media isn’t telling you about the human costs of energy disasters

Watching the tragedy in Fukushima unfold, in recent weeks, I saw a sickening replay of a familiar script. As the magnitude of the dangers posed by the radiation leaks and ongoing failure to control the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were unveiled, their coverage on the main pages of world news outlets decreased.

You could blame it on the public; we have short attention spans. You don’t have to be very far away from these disasters, it seems, to become easily jaded. But if the American public has short attention spans, I will argue that it is because we have been trained to be so, by the Pavlovian conditioning of the daily assault of mass media and advertising. Easily distracted people are easy to sell things to.

But more importantly, easily distracted people also easily forget what their neighbors are going through, even if these are grave crimes. Which serves the spin-masters in the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company just as well as it has our own U.S. government and BP for the past year. If you can hide the worst details of a disaster in the early days, when they come out later fewer people are paying attention.

Which is exactly has happened in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Not yet a year has passed, and the coverage of the real costs to people who live on the Gulf Coast of this disaster are utterly absent from the pages of mainstream American media.

Which is what I am asking you, reader, to overcome.

The gross failure of the media

As a journalist I am particularly angry about the role that the media has played and is playing in downplaying the risks that people face from these disasters, a pattern which I have witnessed both in Fukushima and in the oil flood following the Deepwater Horizon accident.

In our complex, technological, contemporary society the media fills a very important role in informing the public about what is actually going on in the world. However, it seems that to many media outlets and journalists, this role is secondary to managing public perceptions. The role that journalists take mirror that of government and corporate public relations, in that keeping the public calm takes priority.

Or it could be that many journalists themselves do not do sufficient research to find out what the real dangers are. However, I find that highly unlikely given how easy it is to find much of this information from credible sources.

Regardless of why, in both disasters the majority of large, and some local media outlets have failed us by failing to warn the public of the actual dangers that we face from these disasters. The most obvious way was by not warning the public of the worst health effects, though it is significant that the media also frequently fails to report on these health effects as they are revealed.

Media failures in Fukushima

For a long time I was a big fan of the BBC. I felt like I was getting a more balanced, more global, less corporate-influenced version of the news. That confidence is gone. Again and again I have watched the BBC downplay the dangers that the Japanese people face, even as the United States government set a much higher recommended evacuation zone and the head of France’s nuclear agency stated that the accident is an INES level 6 – the second highest rating, less severe only than Chernobyl.

Meanwhile, the BBC, which seems to be taking its cues from the Japanese government, has repeatedly cited the Japanese government’s absurd initial rating of INES level 4. The Japanese government later admitted that the accident is an INES level 5, days after U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the world that the accident was worse than Three Mile Island (a five on the INES scale.)

I now realize there are Judith Millers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Japanese government is interested in downplaying its own liability for allowing Tokyo Electric Power Company to build these plants on a fault line. It doesn’t want a huge health disaster on its hands, and it appears to be doing what President Barack Obama’s administration did after the Deepwater Horizon oil flood – lying its way out of responsibility for what had happened and its inability (unwillingness?) to control a large corporation.

Meanwhile, not only the BBC but a number of media organizations seemed to go out of their way to downplay radiation fears, regurgitating official statistics about the lack of cancer deaths associated with past nuclear accidents. But as the child of a cancer survivor, I know that when someone gets cancer, you never know exactly why, so it is impossible to track all the cases of cancer to which exposure to radiation contributed.

And again, I must cite conflict of interest: government officials have a material interest in not being liable for giving people cancer, not having to deal with public health crises in which they may be implicated, and not interrupting the status quo of power generation.

It is interesting to note that I have seen this in other stories by the BBC, including a story about an Taiwanese factory producing iPhones were workers were exposed to n-hexane, a chemical found in the blood of Gulf Coast residents. The article mentions more superficial effects, but never that n-hexane is toxic to the nervous system.

In high enough doses radiation causes cancer and birth defects. Let’s be clear on that one. The Fukushima disaster has led to very high levels of radioactivity in the ocean and in the air near the plants.


Media failures in the Gulf Coast BP oil disaster

This all follows the play book I saw after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Again and again I watched both U.S. national media and the New Orleans Times-Picayune fall down on the job.

In May 2010, Journalist Tom Philpott of Grist Magazine reported that one of the main ingredients in one of the two varieties of Corexit that BP was spraying contained 2-Butoxyethanol, which causes birth defects and testicular damage in rats (no data for human testing is available for obvious reasons). NIH analysis here: http://hazmap.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/hazmap_generic?tbl=TblAgents&id=129

I never saw the words “birth defects” “reproductive harm” or “testicular damage” in any of the media coverage following the gulf oil flood until a group I worked with organized a rally in Baton Rouge to call for an end to the spraying of Corexit, specifically citing these dangers. After that, the concept again disappeared from the media.

Even when legendary Chemist Wilma Subra (winner of the 2011 Global Exchange Human Rights Award) came to New Orleans to directly address the issue of impacts of the oil and dispersant, and specifically addressed the potential for birth defects, miscarriages and reproductive harm, the Times-Picayune still failed to talk about these dangers.

The article produced, which was better than many before it, specifically mentioned: “skin irritation, nausea, headaches and vomiting… liver and kidney damage, cardiac arrhythmia and chronic respiratory problems”. Journalist Bill Barrow also mentioned that benzene causes cancer – one of the few times that I have seen the word “cancer” in the media connected to this disaster.

Having your child born deformed is many magnitudes of severity greater than skin irritation.

On a technical note, a common practice has been to solely quote Material Safety Data Sheets. Which is dumb. Producing MSDS sheets is the responsibility of the manufacturer, which is a clear conflict of interest. They frequently do not include the most dangerous long-term effects. For a serious accounting of dangers, I refer to the National Institute of Health’s Haz-Map program – a program produced by a credible government organization that is a few steps removed from liability, and does not have the direct competing interests as do the corporations that make dangerous chemicals.

I must also note that in addition to Grist, one other media outlet deserves praise for their forthright coverage of what is happening in the Gulf: Al Jazeera. Looking at their coverage of this disaster, one wonders if Al-Jazeera exists on the same planet as the Times-Picayune and the BBC.

I never thought I would join the activists in Mobile Alabama in praising a media network from a monarchy in the Middle East for their coverage of a local issue. We truly live in strange times.

What is going on in the Gulf

I have very bad news for Gulf residents, which I have waited until after Mardi Gras to deliver for my New Orleans readers.

We have evidence that the seafood from the Gulf is contaminated with high levels of poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, and that the FDA instead changed the acceptable levels to avoid warning you.

Cleanup workers and residents who live in coastal parishes and counties the near the Gulf have been poisoned. A large number are reporting serious health effects, and the blood tests that have come back from some of those suffering these health effects show highly elevated levels of highly toxic hydrocarbons including benzene (which causes cancer), ethylbenze (which may cause cancer, damages the liver, and is toxic to the nervous system), xylene and hexane (which is toxic to the nervous system).

This information is all from the National Institute of Health’s Haz-Map program and Chemist Wilma Subra. The full information from Ms. Subra is available here: http://leanweb.org/news/latest/making-the-connection-2011.html.

I refer you to the earlier information about 2-butoxyethanol and birth defects and reproductive harm. Since we have seen every other health impact associated with these chemicals, there is no reason to believe that we will not see these.

In case you didn’t get the memo the first time around, the government will not tell you, there is a serious health crisis in parts of Southeast Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Gulf Coast, and it is not going away because the cameras have left.

We must transition from fossil fuels and nuclear power

I pray for the residents of Fukushima Prefecture and the residents of Northern Japan, as well as for the residents of the Gulf that none of their families must suffer this terrible outcome, as did families in the Ukraine and Belarus following the Chernobyl disaster.

But we must be clear – cancer, birth defects, and the poisoning of whole regions – these are the human costs of our dependence upon unsustainable energy sources, the drive of large corporations to make a profit at any cost, and the deep collusion between governments and corporations. We will pay them again and again until we make profound changes in the way we use energy, and change the structure of our society.

Moving to a sane and sustainable energy and transportation infrastructure – meaning renewable energy, high speed rail and other forms of efficient mass transit – isn’t just about feeling good about “going green”. It is about people’s lives – whether that is in Navarre Beach Florida, Venice Louisiana, or Fukushima, Japan.

In the short run, people on the Gulf Coast need to have this addressed as a real health crisis and the result of a poisoning, so that they can access the resources that they need.

May 28, 2010

BP Oilmaggeddon update – protest Sunday May 30

Filed under: BP oil spill,environment,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 10:43 am

So Lisa Jackson has “clarified” that they merely “asked” BP to look into other dispersants. She is showing herself to be a total invertebrate and the Obama Administration so far has utterly failed us. I don’t care if Obama comes down here for a photo op; they need to make BP stop using dispersants that cause birth defects and destroy marine life, and they need to actually enforce health and safety instead of letting BP use South Louisiana fishermen and first responders as disposable. The reports that fishermen are not allowed to use masks is particularly horrible.

So you may ask, what are you doing about it? This Sunday, pissed-off New Orleans residents are having a rally at Jackson Square, at 1 PM. If you are in the region come by. Paul Orr from the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper and someone from the Fishermen’s Association (probably George Barisich) will be speaking.

Among other things, we are calling for an end to the use of Corexit, the seizure of BP’s assets, and the declaration of a disaster.

more at murderedgulf.wordpress.com

I sincerely hope the “top kill” works. But whether or not it does, we still have a disaster of unbelievable proportions down here that will continue to go on long after the news cameras leave.

May 20, 2010

Update – EPA orders BP to use different dispersants

Filed under: BP oil spill,environment,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 2:39 pm

Today the Washington Post reports that the EPA has ordered BP to use less toxic dispersants to break up the oil in BP’s petro-Hiroshima.

I have no definite confirmation yet that this means Corexit, but this certainly sounds good.

Thanks to everyone who wrote letters on this. Every little bit counts. BP and the EPA must not be allowed to treat the people of the Gulf Coast as disposable any longer.

May 19, 2010

Open letter to Lisa Jackson, EPA on toxic dispersants

Filed under: environment,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 6:10 pm

Ms. Jackson,

As a resident of South Louisiana, I am writing to call on your agency to rescind approval of the dispersants Corexit EC9527A and Corexit 9500. The National Institute of Health on its Haz-Map website reports that 2-Butoxyethanol, an ingredient in Corexit EC9527A, causes birth defects and reproductive damage in animals, which has been confirmed by scientific studies. Britain and other nations do not allow the use of Corexit EC9527A, and the state of California has identified 2-Butoxyethanol as a hazardous substance. While not as bad as Corexit EC9527A, Corexit 9500 is reported to be more toxic than several commercially available alternatives and we ask that you rescind approval for this dispersant as well. It is bad enough that the people of South Louisiana have been exposed to this horrible oil spill without making it worse by exposing us to toxic chemicals with these kinds of extreme dangers, especially when less dangerous dispersants are available.

The Commercial Fishermen’s Association has already requested that you order a halt to the use of dispersants, and I and my fellow residents of South Louisiana support this call. But even if you do not discontinue the use of all dispersants, we need you to stop allowing BP to use Corexit dispersants.

The public information that your agency has provided is also woefully inadequate. As a partial step in remedying your agency’s extreme failure, you need to immediately post information on the health risks of all dispersants being used, in addition to the warning to use respirators. Furthermore, we do not believe your air quality testing. The air in New Orleans smells like petroleum, people are getting sick and we know something is wrong. Retest and give us accurate information.

As another partial step, you should immediately assist the state of Louisiana in obtaining information on the health dangers of dispersants as requested of BP by Louisiana DHH Secretary Levine, Louisiana DEQ Secretary Peggy Hatch and Louisiana DFW Secretary Barnham.

I cannot adequately express to you my anger in your agency’s failure to adequately protect our health and safety here. When Obama was elected, many of us thought we would be under an administration that would protect us better than the Bush Administration. You and your agency have proven us wrong, and we will not forget this.

Christian Roselund
New Orleans

May 18, 2010

Notes on a disaster, part 3: mutagenic poisons, corporate dominance and failures of the American Left

Filed under: Class,environment,Media,Race,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 4:46 pm

I had originally only intended to write two parts of Notes on a Disaster, however what I have learned in recent days has caused me to re-evaluate. In particular, the failures of Obama’s EPA has dramatically exposed how much the US Government can be a tool of the large corporations. There is an urgency in this issue that must be addressed.

The most overlooked aspect of this whole disaster is the potential impacts of the dispersants, which have been used to break up the oil. It has been revealed that BP and the Coast Guard used two dispersants, called Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527A. Corexit 9527A contains 30-60% of a chemical called 2-butoxyethanol, which the National Institute of Health via its Haz-Map data indicates causes birth defects and reproductive harm in animals. The Coast Guard has dumped and sprayed hundreds of gallons of this toxic substance into the gulf, and we don’t know how much more is on the way.

The only way that I found out about this risk is due to the work of journalist Tom Philpott at Grist.com. Tom is a real hero for putting out this information. While some other media outlets, like the Mobile Press-Register, have expressed strong concerns about the dispersants, no other outlet drew the link to reproductive damage, and the media in general has massively fallen down on the job here. Which should not be surprising, as under our stage of corporate domination, the corporations

The New York Times, however, has at least let us know that Corexit was not the only available dispersant. No, instead it was the only dispersant that was made by a company that BP has a close relationship with.

 

The “free market” and corporate dominance

This is the way that the “free market” actually works in many cases. The natural tendency of capitalism is towards monopoly, and corporations act in their self-interest, whether or not that follows the so-called “rules” of the market. Once corporations get big enough, they make the rules, whether that means overlooking better or cheaper products and/or destroying any competition in the market. BP, like may large companies, does whatever it wants.

This spill and its aftermath should serve as a stark warning that the big corporations are calling the shots here and that the government has been mostly a tool. While Obama gives lip-service to ending the cozy relationships with oil companies, not only has BP not been held to task for the incredible damage they have caused, but they have been allowed to manage the disaster, while the EPA looks the other way. And we who live on the Gulf Coast are treated as disposable.

The lack of information on the dispersants is a perfect example. I encourage all of you to read Mr. Philpott’s article on Grist. Even the Louisiana government is demanding to know more about the dispersants, while the EPA continues to shuck and jive.

In the past the government has been important in reigning in the worst abuses of the corporations. But when we are at this point of corporate dominance, it is essentially the same as Mussolini’s description of fascism – that the government and the corporations are one.

 

The disposable South

Again, it isn’t surprising that Louisiana is getting screwed. The same thing happened after Katrina. I’m reminded of the Legendary KO’s words in George Bush Don’t Care About Black People, written in late 2005: “He would have been in Connecticut twice as fast – after all we’ve been through, nothing’s changed – you can call Red Cross but the fact remains.” If you think that is different under Obama, think again.

The people and land of the Deep South are treated as disposable for reasons of regional, class and race biases that have everything to do with power. It’s easy for the rest of the nation to pass off the whites down here – who are portrayed as ignorant, backwards racists in much of the mainstream media. It’s a poor region with low education, and that allows people in other parts of the country to sneer at Southerners, and then, and when we suffer for the nation’s oil supply, to intimate that we somehow deserve this. Black Southerners have always gotten the short end of the stick, but all of us in the Deep South – especially whites – have to realize that as it is easier for large corporations and the federal government to disregard blacks, this allows them to prey on the whole region.

Let’s be clear here – Louisiana is suffering for the nation’s oil.

 

Failures of the Left

This is a time when we need leaders to organize the people take on the corporations. Unfortunately, the American Left for decades has been a marginal force that is content to sit back and make absurd, maximalist demands instead of organizing for real change. Another failure of the Left is attachment to historical terms and cultural identifiers that, if they do mean anything to the people they would organize, merely associate leftists with failed models and foreign dictatorships.

People down here need real help and real solutions. We need to be safe, and we need a movement that will make sure that this never happens again. That will only come when we stop the corporations. And that will only come when we have a real movement that can speak to and work with people in places like Louisiana. We are on the front lines.

May 13, 2010

Notes on a Disaster, part 2

Filed under: culture,environment,New Orleans Economy,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 1:11 pm

Readers will pardon the delay in delivering part 2 of Notes on a Disaster. Ten days is a long time in many disasters; however in this one it isn’t. Not only does oil continue to gush, unchecked, from the ocean floor, but we are going to be living with this spill for a long, long time.

Before I get into the meat of this post, what have we learned in the last few weeks?

1.BP could find out better estimates of how much oil is leaking, but either won’t or won’t share what they do know – courtesy of NPR.

2.The air quality in Plaquemines Parish is f***ed – courtesy of chemist Wilma Subra and Louisiana Environmental Action Network. The amounts of hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds are hundreds of times the levels for physical reactions.

3.While offshore drilling carries significant inherent risks, BP fucked up really bad on this one, and the lack of regulation is finally being noticed by the media. Which goes to my point in part 1 about thirty years of dismantling health, environmental and safety regulations, led by the Republican Party, unchecked by weak institutions of organized labor. Failures of batteries, blowout preventer, Ongoing failures of regulation.

4.Containment will be harder than we hoped.

5.No one wants to tell us what the oil dispersants will do to our health (courtesy of LEAN).

 

Louisiana, Oil and the Spectacle

Oil is far from the only industry in South Louisiana. Very significantly, we have an enormous tourist industry; when conventions are included this is estimated to be about $5 billion in the city of New Orleans alone. And while much of the tourism hinges around the reputation of the City of New Orleans as a place of wildness and decadence, the culture of the region – largely the music and the food – are perhaps more important. In the rural areas, food and music absolutely are the draws.

However, as Gulf Restoration Network often points out with their No Coast No Music festival and advertisements, the music is a product of the land of South Louisiana. If this is true of music, it is moreso true of food.

The oil industry burrows itself into the cultural economy, to assure that when these contradictions do emerge, they are insulated. The largest example is Shell Oil’s sponsorship of Jazz Fest, New Orleans’ second largest tourist draw (after Mardi Gras) and a PR extravaganza for Shell. Shell has used their sponsorship of this festival in the past to try and muzzle musicians like Dr. John, who has been outspoken about the way that the oil industry has ruined the coast. Gulf Restoration Network has also used the festival as a public education opportunity, flying planes with banners over the festival asking Shell to “Hear the music – fix the coast you broke”.

There is also the function of keeping the spectacle going as a way to prop up the city’s economy and a distraction from the very serious realities of life in South Louisiana. Everybody likes music and food, and we are masterful down here at living Le Bon Temps while the world sinks around us.

Jazz Fest is not the only place the Oil Industry inserts itself into the cultural landscape. Every September, the city of Morgan City, in the heart of Bayou Country near the mouth of the Atchafalaya River holds the (yes, this is real) Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. It will be interesting to see how well attended that festival is this year.

But perhaps the most cynical move by the oil industry is creation of the America’s Wetlands organization; a faux-grassroots effort by big oil to pressure the federal government to put money into fixing South Louisiana’s wetlands so that they won’t have to. Tragically, since locals have organized few other mechanisms to address these needs and America’s Wetlands is so well funded, many locals in South Louisiana will half-heartedly support the effort – even though they know it is a sham.

 

Our addiction to fossil fuels: policy

When faced with a disaster of this scale, people want quick answers. But America didn’t get into this addiction easily and even under the best case scenarios we won’t get out of it easily. We can’t just stop offshore oil drilling – we have to reduce our use of petroleum, otherwise that oil will have to come from somewhere. The best moves we can make to change this dependence will take decades.

It was a series of policy moves over decades at the national level that created this monster. Where shall we start? Autmobilies were emerging on their own as a popular product in the early 20th century, but there were a few steps along the way where they got a little help in taking over our landscape.

How about the Great American Streetcar Scandal where Standard Oil, Mac Truck, Firestone Tires and other companies got together to buy up the mass transit in 45 cities, so they could destroy them?1

Better yet, the building of the interstate highway system in the 1950′s and 1960′s – the creation of the world’s most aggressive automobile and truck infrastructure paid for with our tax money.

Let’s not forget the building of the roads system in our national forests, which subsidized big timber and left us with more miles of publicly constructed roadways than the insterstate highway system.

It is ironic that the “free-market” right supports the oil and nuclear industries, pretending that they came to dominance by the rule of the market, when in fact they were greatly assisted by specific policy decisions. Big government intervened heavily to create a dependence upon the automobile and fossil fuels. In making these arguments “free-market” ideologues are denying the historical reality that got us here.

 

Policy, Energy and Infrastructure

The policy decisions that we are making today are likewise crucial, and it is here that the Left has an important role.

Marxist-Leninist regimes are not known for progressive environmental policies (with the significant exception of post-1991 Cuba); however the Social-Democratic Left has been a world leader. When looking at the rise of the solar industry, many are quick to forget the policy that started in Denmark and Germany and has been replicated across Europe, the feed-in tariff, was passed in both countries by coalitions of Greens and Socialists. Because of the feed-in tariff not only has Europe installed 80% of solar panels used globally (not to mention dozens of offshore wind parks and other renewable development), but they have essentially created a booming global industry.

Likewise, the battles in the United States over policies that move us away from fossil fuel dependencies have been in recent years a battle between the left and the right of the extremely narrow American political spectrum. Spurred on by a large if problematic environmental movement, the Democrats in congress under Obama’s leadership have passed policies that are extremely important first steps for moving away from this dependency.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus package”) in particular has supplied funding for both passenger rail and renewable energy development. And while much more is needed for the kind of wholesale changes in our mode of life, these moves have been groundbreaking. Let’s not forget that in doing so, Obama was influenced strongly by a former self-described communist – Van Jones. Again the left has led, but this time, it has found institutional support in Obama’s administration.

Likewsie, the Republican Party and the “Blue Dog” Democrats – like Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu – have blocked significant progress on policies that would move us away from this dependency. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal even rejected stimulus money intended for passenger rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Republican and “moderate” Democratic politicians, elected by voters nationwide including in Louisiana, are keeping this addiction going.

However, it is a national addiction and most of the oil that is coming out of Louisiana is not going to Baton Rouge or Lafayette – it is going all over the nation, including to cities like Cambridge, Massachusetts, Madison, Wisconsin, Boulder, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, full of smug progressives and liberals, who, even if they don’t drive, live the rest of their lives on our petroleum infrastructure. Louisiana has a tragic relationship to the oil industry that in many ways is like an abused spouse. But it is extremely important not to blame the victims here.

The world is already moving in this direction. But we won’t get there by alienating poor and working people, or by blaming the victims. Some of the solutions, like a move to biomass from agriculture and forestry wastes for a portion of electricity production, will upset environmental fundamentalists but will be extremely important for the Deep South.

Van Jones has set an excellent example in his call for Green Jobs. There is a way to move away from fossil fuels and create a more broadly prosperous society. It is time for Louisiana to become a leader again, like we were in the 1930′s.

March 7, 2010

Nutriapalooza II

Filed under: culture,environment,Southern Louisiana,We Are Not OK — christian @ 3:57 pm

There are those nights when you say to yourself – this is why I live in the greatest city on earth, New Orleans. For the record, I felt this sentiment in fully sobriety, as has been my less-than-ideal state for all two weeks and five days of Lent.

Nutriapalooza is one of those events that could only happen in this city. Billed as a fashion show, it was actually simultaneously a fashion show, an environmental education event and a cultural celebration of South Louisiana and our city of beautiful freaks. Saturday night was Nutriapalooza II (I missed the first one, which I have heard was also great).

Where to begin? The tattooed models on the runway in Audrey Hepburn-esque fur outfits made from our favourite invasive species? The outrageous rock and roll auction of nutria fur? The beautiful work that went into turning rodents into fashion?

Again, only here. Before I go further, let me explain for those of you unfamiliar with what they called on Broad Street “nutria rats” that the nutria is a member of the muskrat family that was imported into Louisiana in the early 20th century to be raised for its fur. Nutria got loose, bred like, well, rodents, and have been helping the oil industry sink out wetlands into the Gulf of Mexico for over 50 years. So we have to get rid of them, one way or another. Which means killing them off. It’s them or us.

Also, they happen to have really fine fur.

The show was sold out, and my friend and I got the last two tickets for standing room only. It started fairly slowly, with a presentation by the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) and its charismatic “invasive species” guy, Michael, who was frequently interrupted by questions from a rowdy audience that wanted to know, among other things, why nutrias had such poor dental hygiene. (They don’t. Their teeth are naturally yellow-orange.)

There was also a discussion of nutria as cuisine, an idea that State of Louisiana officials have, in the past, devoted millions to. This was not particularly successful. And while I strongly believe not wasting the flesh of dead animals, my own experience with nutria, as have been documented on this blog, were not pleasant. I think it could work out roasted with a honey glaze, but for God’s sake, DO NOT STEW. It is not a good idea to stew any particularly gamy meat, and especially NOT NUTRIA. Maybe I hadn’t cleaned it properly, but I ended up with a broth that was really only suitable for chemical warfare. Also, I will note that the hindquarters were much gamier than the rest.

There was also a presentation by Mr. Pitre, the last nutria furrier in Louisiana and the man who supplied the rodent furs for the fashion show. This was a rare moment – in a freak venue on St. Claude, to have a second-generation furrier from rural South Louisiana explaining his family business and the fluctuations in the price of nutria pelts to a fascinated audience.

Finally, after a few more shows including the inadequately-miked but charming Jurassic Parish Folk Ensemble and their song about five dollars a pelt, the models came on.

Before I go any further, I have to say that I’ve never really been able to understand why scantily clad tattooed women in fur bikinis do it for me. Maybe it was growing up reading too many Savage Sword of Conan comics, but this was hot.

The designs were not only beautiful but daring and broad in scope. We saw and entire gamut from Red Sonjaesque and Native American-inspired designs (where did the gutterpunks get the idea to all dress like late-19th century Native American train robbers, anyway?) all the way to 1940′s and 1860′s styles, and a hauntingly beautiful homage at the end of the show to recently deceased fashion designer Alexander McQueen. There were even nutria designs for men, but unfortunately few of these items were on sale at the auction later.

John C. Calhoun was one kick-ass auctioneer, regularly performing multiple kicks in the air and stage dives, backed by the newly-formed Invasive Species, which is actually they guy who works as a notary public on Prytania on guitar, and Helen the cellist on drums.

But what’s amazing about all of this is that this was an environmental awareness event, and worked as such. It was also a tiny bridge between the urban-rural divide in South Louisiana, where rural residents often show contempt, financial jealousy (“they get all the federal money and we have to make do on our own”) and fear of our city, and people in New Orleans forget that rural Louisiana even exists. Which is not in our best interests, if for no other reason than we need the wetlands for this city to survive. More and more people here are getting it, which can be the basis for a political movement which will be necessary (and which may not be enough) for South Louisiana to survive this century.

Every student of environmental communications should study the Righteous Fur movement. This truly was making environmental issues sexy. In our own weird and beautiful way.

Thanks to Cree McCree and Righteous Fur, Micheal and BTNEP, John Calhoun, Helen Gillet, Notary Guitarist/MC Guy, Mr. Pitre the furrier, all the designers and models (especially the Rat King) and everyone else for a superb event.


Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program

Righteous Fur

December 20, 2009

What is wild?

Filed under: Class,culture,environment,Southern Louisiana,We Are Not OK — christian @ 10:13 pm

Exciting news for Dirty South Bureau: tomorrow I am going to an interview on a short film that flimmaker Ed Holub and I produced on the impacts of hurricanes and loss of wetlands on communities in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes. It’s thrilling to know that our short, the Human Cost, will be shown along with the other winners of Gulf Restoration Network’s Defend Our Wetlands, Defend Ourselves film contest on local television courtesy of Timecode NOLA. When Ed and I shot the footage and the interviews we knew we were on to a big story, but didn’t figure that we would make local TV.

For those of you who weren’t aware of this, Southern Louisiana is experiencing an environmental catastrophe unparalleled in our nation. We are literally losing the land in our coastal parishes, as the wetlands and marsh slip away into the Gulf of Mexico. Why this isn’t a bigger national story says a lot about the warped priorities of our media, but also about our own ideas about what the “environment”, “nature” and “wild” mean.

Part of the film focuses on the struggle of the Point-aux-Chenes people, a native people living in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, to survive. The Point-Aux-Chenes and other native groups in South Louisiana are not recognized by the federal government. Like the native Americans in Southeast Alaska, natives in South Louisiana waged no wars against the United States and were never put on reservations. The old folks speak French and they live next door to Cajun and other bayou communities, with a history of intermixing that appears to predate the purchase of the land by President Jefferson in 1803. With their French language, their diesel powered shrimping boats, and their assimilated way of life – not much different than their neighbors – they are about as far from the American cigar store, feather headdress image of Native Americans as you could get.

But is it European culture that assimilated these indigenous people, or the other way around? In many practical respects, if you forget about the diesel fuel and modern wooden houses, the way of life for those living off the bounty of the sea and the land is not fundamentally different.

The natives of South Louisiana challenge our post-Rousseau Western notions of what is “wild”. In the “untamed” West of the United States, we set aside huge areas of land as “natural” preserves, to protect some pristine notion of wilderness from our own impacts. After, of course, we removed the people who lived there. In this dichotomy of “wild” vs. “civilized”, the space for contemporary indigenous people is in a museum or on a reservation.

By these notions the land of South Louisiana is hardly “pristine”; but does that make it any less worth saving? What about the people who live there: Native American, Cajun and just folks who live down the bayou?

Much of the failure of modern environmentalism has been rooted in false dichotomies – nature vs. people, trees vs. jobs – which the large corporations who perpetrate environmental crimes, be they Shell or International Paper – are more than happy to perpetuate. But environmentalists are part of the problem. When environmentalist and their organizations – and the big national ones have been among the worst – speak the language of yuppie environmentalism, where the environment is something on the outside, separate from us, that needs to be “saved” (at times by removing people), the seeds of these conflicts are sown.

The truth is that we are dependent upon our environment, and the most pressing reason to be concerned about environmental issues is that they affect us, our health, and our ability to survive. We are the ones that need saving. Nowhere is this as clear as South Louisiana, which is ground zero for environmental issues.

A big thank you to Chuck Verdin, Nathalie Bergeron, Robert Bergeron, Marylee Orr, Paul Orr, Aaron Viles and everyone who made this possible. The Human Cost can be seen on YouTube.

March 29, 2009

Mr. Go, the future, and hope.

I don’t know what has gotten into me. This week, yet again, I find myself posting positive news on Dirty South Bureau.

I have an innate aversion to this. Perhaps because there is so much misery and pain that people don’t want to talk about but that needs to be learned from, I have taken it on as my personal role to work in such territory. Or maybe it is a deep revulsion to the sunny voices that dominate certain types of media, such as many shows produced by NPR affiliates. For the stories I produced for such venues when I was a radio reporter, I recall the premium placed on resolution of the crisis in the story, which contrasted with the absence of easy resolution in post-Katrina New Orleans. Either way, I tend to avoid overly cheery accounts; after all Sheila Stroup might get testy if I start to tread on her emotional market share.

And yet there is no other way to express my experience yesterday of attending a ceremony to mark progress on the closure of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO).

For those of you not living in this region, Mr. Go, as we like to call it, is a 76-mile shipping channel leading from the Gulf of Mexico into the Intercoastal Waterway, a few miles before the Interharbor Navigational Canal (AKA the Industrial Canal), which cuts through the 9th Ward and divides New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward from the main part of the city. It is also the “hurricane superhighway” that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, carried a brutal storm surge into the Intercoastal Waterway and the Industrial Canal, where it destroyed levee walls on both sides, flooding the 9th Ward, the Lower 9th Ward and large swaths of St. Bernard Parish, particularly the parts where most people live.

Of course, there were other factors: the loose barge left in the industrial canal that went through the flood wall into the Lower 9th, not to mention the poor design, construction and maintenance of levees, much of which was revealed in a forensic investigation by a UC Berkeley team in the summer of 2006. Even with these qualifications, Mr. Go is not a popular waterway for many here.

The boat launch was at 8 a.m., and, needless to say, my companion and I arrived late. This was in part due to the fact that we had never been to Yscloskey, Louisiana, before. I believe that by the time we found Yscloskey we had seen much of rural St. Bernard Parish, which is a hauntingly beautiful landscape. I was reminded of how Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s describes the bogs in Jutland – wild, desolate, utterly empty areas of grassland and swamp, broken in areas by stands of trees, many of them dead.

Our timing turned out to be good luck. Immediately upon finding the Yscloskey Marina we encountered a lost Argentinian photographer, in a very Down By Law moment. With his help we flagged down a passing motorboat, containing not one but two councilmen from St. Bernard Parish, Wayne Landry and George Cavignac, who were kind enough to give us a personal tour of the Mr. Go closure.

Mr. Go is a very impressive waterway. During the high-speed boat ride (we were advised to close our teeth) Landry and Cavignac patiently and cheerfully explained the ins and outs of the waterway, as we passed barge-loads of large rocks and earth-moving equipment. Originally built to be around 500 feet wide, Mr. Go is now between 1,000 and 2,000 feet wide, enough for many cargo vessels to pass each other, ships that now have to use the Mississippi River as they did for the first 250 years of this city, and as many did anyway afterwards.

The rock wall that we reached was not particularly impressive, despite the crane atop it. It spanned only part of the waterway, and to our disappointment it appeared that no heavy work was being done that morning. Are we being overly impatient? It should be noted that the entire industrial canal took only nine years from legislative approval (1956) to completion (1965). As a nation, we can accomplish incredible feats of engineering (particularly with the Army Corps of Engineers) when, and only when, there is the political will. How about our white flight superhighway, the 24-mile causeway spanning Lake Ponchartrain, that we built to allow middle-class and affluent whites to escape the city and still commute in the 50′s and 60′s? It is now three and a half years after Katrina. How long will it take to build a rock wall across a mere 1,500 feet of canal?

Some say that a rock wall is not enough – that Mr. Go should be filled. I am in no position to evaluate such proposals, but Cavignac and Landry indicated that a rock wall, while it won’t entirely stop a storm surge, would at least act as a brake on the speed and intensity of any storm surges traveling up the waterway.

But the important part to all of us is that it is there, and that it is being built. It meant something to me. As absurd as it may sound, I saw hope in that pile of rocks.

It was also a lovely day, just cool enough to be invigorating, with pelicans and hawks passing overhead and dolphins swimming in the waters. All of that is enough to make us forget, temporarily, that New Orleans and Southern Louisiana are ground zero for the impacts of global warming. Sea level rise due to the melting of polar ice adds to other factors that cause the wetlands that protect this city to increasingly disappear. And of course, there is the link between global warming and more severe hurricanes. In the end, the levee walls constructed after Katrina and severely tested during Hurricane Gustav (anyone else remember watching Geraldo Rivera narrate water splashing over the top of levee walls on a television in a distant city?), may not hold back the next major Hurricane to hit this region. We are all guinea pigs here.

I am reminded of the end of the movie Blade Runner, when the Harrison Ford character, escaping the city to the north, explains that he doesn’t know how much time he and his genetically manufactured girlfriend have before her internal clock stops ticking. “But who does?” he asks. New Orleans is in deep shit for a lot of reasons, and may not survive this century. But many of us, who choose to live here because we love this city, don’t need forever. We just need some reasonable assurances of short-to-medium term viability, including some effort by the feds to fix any infrastructure problems that threaten us with total annihilation. It’s just not too much to ask for a medium-sized American city.

Coming back in the motorboat to the safety of the launch, past the enormous piles of rock fill, I was given just enough of that assurance.

(Big thanks to St. Bernard Councilmen Wayne Landry and George Cavignac for their superb hospitality.)

August 31, 2008

Evacuation

Thanks to everyone who has checked on my safety and sent both kind words and a factual correction.

So the weekend trip I had planned to New York is looking like it will be my Hurrication, and potentially indefinite. To say that things do not look good seems like too massive of an understatement. Since we’ve been living in disaster for the last three years, the idea of a storm worse than Katrina kind of boggles the mind.

But there it is, less than 24 hours away. The good news is that nearly everyone I have been able to contact has evacuated, and is relatively safe.

I’m not sure how to feel about the 311 system the city put in place to deal with evacuating folks who don’t have cars. It worked for a friend of mine who is now in Birmingham, but it took him six hours to get through. But for that it worked at all I have to give the city credit. Other friends were not able to get through and found another way. There is still the question of how many people, if any, have been left behind.

So far I have heard from two people who are planning on riding this storm out. I personally do not think this is a good idea (and have said so), but since I can’t stop them, I will be reposting their accounts of what goes on in New Orleans.

I am personally hoping and praying that the Corps of Engineers is downplaying the repairs that have been made to the levees in the East Bank of Orleans Parish, and that they will hold. However there is a new concern; that the West Bank levees may not.

This puts a large number of people on the West Bank of the Mississippi (Algiers, Gretna and other municipalities and areas in Jefferson Parish) at great risk.

Southern Louisiana, including Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, are also in deep shit. I don’t know about their levee systems, but there is serious danger simply from the winds if Gustav continues at its current magnitude. New Orleans was actually spared the worst of Katrina’s winds; closer to the eye of the storm and particularly on the eastern side the damage, both from winds and a tsunami, was more intense. These places often didn’t receive the magnitude of damage or the press that New Orleans did largely because they were less populous.

Southern Louisiana may take decades to recover from this, if ever. Many in these areas were already struggling economically from the collapsed price of shrimp. The last time I was in Buras, about ten months ago, it looked like Katrina had just hit, but larger towns like Houma were doing better.