Ways & Means: Disaster Denial What Hurricane Katrina has in common with September 11 By Carl Pope
DeLisle, Mississippi, is about as far from lower Manhattan as you can get. But what this struggling, blue-collar town in the solidly Republican South has in common with wealthy, cosmopolitan New York City is that when disaster struck, the federal government's response was not recovery but cover-up.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Bush administration lied to the people of New York about the health hazards posed by the smoking rubble, needlessly endangering thousands of first responders who might otherwise have taken precautions. (A large study published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found 78 percent of them were experiencing persistent respiratory problems a year later.) Government agencies also told residents it was safe to move back into their homes when it was not, then gave them misleading and dangerous instructions on how to clean up the toxic dust left behind.
Instead of learning from the mistakes of 2001, the Bush administration codified them in a new, omnibus National Response Plan for domestic disasters of any kind. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck DeLisle and the rest of the Gulf Coast, the federal government was unprepared to offer assistance—but it was ready to suspend health standards for toxic cleanups and let political appointees filter scientific information before it reached the public, overriding the judgment of health officials. The administration waived 90 safety, environmental, and health laws, while the EPA issued documents "assuming" the open-pit burning of waste, including toxic materials. (It did recommend that the burn sites be at least 1,000 feet from homes and businesses.) In addition, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (R) suspended the state's entire corpus of public-health and environmental protections. Estimates of storm debris in southern Mississippi ranged as high as 42 million cubic yards; burning it turned a solid-waste problem into an air-pollution one.
Very soon, I began to hear from local Sierra Club members about health effects. Residents near the burn areas reported difficulty breathing, sore throats, and irritated eyes. Even more alarming were the stories coming from DuPont's DeLisle titanium dioxide plant, which produces 14 million pounds of toxic waste each year and is one of the country's largest emitters of carcinogenic dioxin. The plant, located next to the Bay of St. Louis, was battered by a 28-foot storm surge and hurricane winds. One e-mail came from a disabled woman with multiple health problems who lives a mile and a half from the site: "Last Saturday night DuPont was burning their trash, even though there was a burn ban on," she complained. "Someone said they had a permit. But it was bad. The smoke was bad and the smell was worse."
Neither Mississippi nor the EPA tested any of the homes and schools near the DeLisle plant for chemical contamination. Instead, unburdened by the need to enforce the state's environmental laws, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality busied itself putting out reassuring press releases. Mirroring the EPA's response to September 11, the DEQ blandly advised residents not to worry: "While the plant site was inundated with water and railcars were pushed off of the tracks and onto their sides, no hazardous material releases or leaks were observed. The onsite landfill for waste disposal remained intact and was not overcome by the storm surge."
Note "were observed." Not even the keenest-eyed DEQ inspector can observe dioxin contamination. In the rush to resume business as usual, commonsense precaution went out the window on the Gulf Coast. Katrina was without doubt the largest environmental catastrophe ever to strike the United States, and the government's response was to waive environmental laws. Such an approach shouldn't come as a surprise. After September 11, the administration announced that it would suspend federal cleanup requirements in the event of another terrorist attack. It seemed incredible that the government would selectively sentence communities scarred by terrorism to indefinite environmental devastation, but with Katrina it became clear that the White House is all too ready to walk away from disasters, natural or manmade. As citizens, our expectation of assistance from the federal government now contains the same loopholes found in insurance policies: "Not valid for acts of God or states of war."