Guardian of Grand Bois
Clarice Friloux--homemaker, arm wrestler, sludge fighter
By Janisse Ray
South of New Orleans, in the black-marsh country of the Louisiana delta, lies a town called Grand Bois, too small for most maps. About 250 people, mainly of Native American and Cajun descent, live in modest aluminum-sided houses along State Route 24, which connects Bourg, 3 miles west, to Larose, 13 miles east. The town straddles two parishes, Lafourche and Terrebonne, where churches have names like Our Lady of Prompt Succor, and Mardi Gras parades are staggered so parishioners can attend more of them. Murky bayous teem with alligators, catfish, and crawfish, and the immense live oak trees, cloaked thickly with Spanish moss, are a sight to see.
Grand Bois, anyone will tell you, has no crime. Occasionally a wildlife officer will cite one of the kids for going over his limit duck-hunting. Yet an immense crime has taken place here.
One day in March 1994, eight tractor-trailers loaded with hazardous waste streamed into town. They were headed for a treatment facility on land leased to Campbell Wells Corporation (now U.S. Liquids), which consisted of 16 open pits dug to process toxic sludge from oil fields. They were the first of an army of trucks that came and went, while contract employees stirred the sludge back and forth with gigantic egg beaters until it evaporated or leached into the ground. Employees called what they did to the waste "working it over."
Seven years later, I meet Clarice Friloux for breakfast in Houma, Louisiana, a nearby town large enough to have a motel. Clarice, 35, was born in Grand Bois. Shy and quiet, she spent most of her time keeping house for her husband, Danny, a ship repairman, and their two children-until the day those tractor-trailers came to town and changed her life forever. Since then she has been fighting for her community. She walks into the restaurant looking just as I imagined-purposeful, eager, hopeful. She is not a tall woman, but looks very strong; she wears simple walking boots with bluejeans and a brown V-necked sweater.
How was the motel? she wants to know. Did I find my way from New Orleans without getting lost? Did I sleep well? She is warm and gracious, not what I'd expect from someone I've heard is a tri-state arm-wrestling champion.
Danny, now on disability income because of lower-back deterioration, accompanies Clarice. He speaks in a thick Cajun accent, and despite his pain, smiles as readily as does she. I ask him if everybody in Grand Bois has an accent like his, and he ducks his head, "I don't know nobody in Grand Bois got an accent," he says with a grin. "But I do have a problem with people understanding me."
Clarice tells me what happened to her community. "Everybody got sick after '94," she says. When the convoy descended on Grand Bois, so did a chartful of health problems. "It was like an invasion," Clarice recalls. At the facility, men in "moonsuits" scurried around, dumping truckloads of sludge, until a stench that seemed a combination of diesel, mildew, and rotten egg permeated the tiny town. "The smell was piercing, like it would tear the insides of your nose out," Clarice says. "The children got off the school bus with their shirts over their faces."
Clarice's brother, R. J. Molinere, was driving his family to a boxing match in Larose one afternoon during the March dumping. As they passed the facility his children threatened to vomit, and he hurriedly pulled off the road, only to be
accosted by vapors that took their breath away and left their eyes swollen and teary. That night, he laid towels across door-cracks to keep out the fumes, and made rounds in his dark house, putting his ear to the children's mouths to make sure they were still breathing.
For ten days 81 trucks bearing waste laced with substances like benzene, toluene, hydrogen sulfide, and arsenic roared into Grand Bois. They came from an Exxon petroleum-treatment plant in Alabama.
"That spring was mild," Clarice says, "and there was no wind blowing in. So the stink wasn't coming from somewhere else. We could smell the chemicals on our clothes. The school bus was turning around right in front of the facility, so we were gassing our children." Because the facility was on the St. Louis Canal, a bayou dug decades ago to haul cypress out to the Intracoastal Waterway, wastes arrived by barge as well as by truck. "They could come in the middle of the night and just poison us," Clarice says.
Frightened neighbors began to discuss what might be done. Clarice called her parish council member, who
advised her to start a petition. For 17 straight days she and others stood by the highway, waving a hand-lettered placard asking passersby to sign the petition to shut down the facility. Finally they had 5,000 signatures. These in hand, Clarice appeared at the parish council meetings, first in Lafourche and then in Terrebonne.
"Before that, we had no idea who was the parish president, who was senator, who was governor," Clarice says. And why should she, since she is Houma Indian, a people without a history of respect from the government? Clarice's great-grandfather had raised cattle south of Grand Bois, until the hurricane of 1915 destroyed everything he had and he migrated north. His children, who were full-blooded Native American although they bore the French surname given to the family by early settlers, grew up in Grand Bois.
"I was this little Indian girl," she says. "We weren't even allowed to attend school in Bourg. They shipped us to the next parish over to go to school." Her childhood was spent swimming in the bayous, fishing for catfish, feeding the chickens, and riding horses. Danny was a local, too. "Half of the community is his family, the other half is mine," Clarice says.
Determined to protect her relations, Clarice formed a committee that consisted of her closest supporters, including her husband, brother R. J., his wife, and any others eager to work. The council members to whom she had appealed said that they couldn't close the facility, but one of them contacted an attorney.
Enter Gladstone Jones III, a Mississippi-born lawyer who stands almost seven feet tall, son and stepson of attorneys. Barely two years out of Tulane's law school and three months into his own practice, Jones was eager for a challenge. By April, he would set up shop on a picnic table in Clarice's yard while the community gathered around him.
"It didn't take much investigation to find the Exxon loads were full of hydrogen sulfide and benzene at high levels of toxicity," Jones says. The benzene was at levels 150 times those allowable by occupational law. "We decided to bring suit against Campbell Wells, the operator in control, and Exxon, who had dumped that particular waste, on the grounds of exposure as a result of negligence." The community couldn't afford Jones, nor the legal acrobatics necessary to shut down the facility, but within days a wealthy Houston attorney who heard about the case on the news rang Jones's telephone and offered to be his backer.
What Clarice refers to as "the Cause" quickly gave her an education in the seamy side of politics. She learned that any other state in the Union would have required the facility to label the wastes as hazardous and handle them accordingly. Not Louisiana. In 1980 the U.S. Congress granted oversight to the states to determine how they regulated hazardous wastes. By 1981 Louisiana, where some have suggested the Texaco star be placed atop the capitol, passed a law allowing wastes generated by the oil and gas industries to be classified as nonhazardous, although specific components, such as benzene, toluene, and heavy metals like lead and arsenic, are known health hazards. "The minute it crosses the state line it's not a hazardous material," says Clarice.
Meanwhile, convoys continued to arrive and unload their sludge. Residents began to frequent doctors with upper respiratory ailments, headaches, nosebleeds, blurred vision, and nausea. One man, Lyes Verdin, lived near the facility with his wife and three-year-old daughter, who developed leg welts, involuntary blinking, severe
diarrhea, and then asthma. Verdin sent his family to live with relatives
in a nearby town.
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