Justice Polluted: An Environmental-Justice Attorney Explains How the Civil Rights of Gulf Coast Residents Were Violated

Article excerpt

The images of suffering from Hurricane Katrina are seared into America's collective memory: the flooded streets, the abandoned corpses, the residents crying for help that took days to arrive. Yet the months and years following the hurricane may provide even more egregious examples of government abdicating its responsibilities.

Monique Harden, the co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, an environmental-justice organization, explains why the Bush administration violated the civil rights of Gulf Coast residents and even the letter of the United Nations' guiding principles on internal displacement.

AS: Your organization fights environmental racism. What exactly is that?

MH: It's unequal environmental protection based on race. And so for example, the United States: the data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in polluted neighborhoods. This could be completely prevented if we had adequate laws that recognize that all people have a right to a healthy and safe environment. Instead, we have laws that look to the economic feasibility of polluters as a priority, not to health protection and environmental sustainability.

AS: How has environmental racism manifested in the Gulf Coast area?

MH: The typical way in which environmental racism expresses itself is that people don't have the right to determine their future in the community; someone else does, and that decision can be debilitating in terms of the future of that community. After Katrina, there's that same kind of injustice, where the people who lived in the communities prior to the hurricane really don't have this right to determine what's best for their communities, what's best for restoration and rebuilding. Instead, they're having to contend with a decision to raze all the houses to put something else there, or not to open a public health-care facility, or in decisions to close down schools. These are the battles that are taking place all over the Gulf region in areas that were affected by the hurricanes, taking away the things that make a community a community, which means pushing people out of communities, whether it's Alabama or Mississippi or Louisiana.

AS: What has happened with displaced people who moved back to New Orleans?

MH: Many residents who manage to come back home still experience issues of displacement because of the closing of a local school or health-care facilities not being up and running or the job that you had before Katrina is no longer available, so you're struggling to find a way to make ends meet. No one in this country has the right to recover when a national disaster is declared. Everything is up to the discretion of whoever is in the White House, and under the Bush administration, that has meant ushering in a disaster-response agenda that really boils down to privatizing public services and unraveling basic social networks that people have relied on in this region.

When a national disaster is declared, it triggers a federal law called the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. The law is extremely problematic because it grants the president complete discretionary authority over all matters involving governmental response to the disaster, with just a few small exemptions. And it explicitly denies an individual affected by a national disaster the right to claim assistance or compensation for loss. So it's basically a law that denies governmental accountability when you need government the most.

AS: Does that mean residents who say they were poisoned by the formaldehyde in their FEMA trailer don't have any standing to sue the government?

MH: The lawsuits right now are against the companies that manufactured the trailers and not against the government. There [was] a elass-action lawsuit [struck down in December]. Again, it [was] a private piece of litigation--individual residents who were in the FEMA trailers versus the companies that manufactured those trailers that were then sold to the government. …