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The latest updates on some of the stories we reported on in 2004

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Quality Control

Ken Ford, who lives a half-mile down the road from the ExxonMobil Chalmette Refinery, says he has tried to love his neighbor. 'We need industry, we welcome industry Š it creates jobs,' he told Gambit Weekly ('The Smell Test,' Feb. 24). But after 25 years of worrying about noxious odors in the air and oily soot on his windowsill, he got tired of the refinery's reassurances that the chemical odors posed no health threats. So Ford founded an organization, St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality, and in February filed a lawsuit alleging that the refinery routinely violates its permit, releasing harmful levels of pollutants that endanger the welfare of nearby residents.

Aided by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental watchdog group, and by Tulane's Environmental Law Clinic, Ford's group filed a citizen's suit. This type of lawsuit, allowed by the Clean Air Act, is intended to give the public another avenue to relief when government agencies are slow to act. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality's ongoing investigation into the refinery has yet to result in a fine or increased safeguards.

The case moved forward this fall, when the district judge denied Chalmette Refinery's request for a delay while they negotiated a settlement with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). 'Chalmette has been negotiating with the LDEQ for approximately four years without reaching a settlement,' Judge Sarah Vance wrote in her decision. In the absence of a concrete and enforceable settlement plan, the plaintiffs will continue to pursue the case, says Adam Babich, director of Tulane's Law Clinic. 'The plaintiffs' goals are to move Chalmette Refinery as quickly as possible towards compliance.' The next hearing is set for January.

Majoring in Macy's

Drum majors, we were told, are more sought-after than quarterbacks. ('The Majors,' February 17). Carrying that big baton through this city's Mardi Gras parades does mean watching for straight lines, looking for TV cameras and calling the tunes when needed -- it's serious work. But anyone who's named drum major in New Orleans can expect his (or her) status to rise exponentially. Apparently, Macy's shares this love affair with our local drum majors and marching bands. In November, St. Augustine High School's vaunted Marching 100 was one of only 10 bands to play in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

It's Their Party, and They'll Š

'There is no silver lining here. We'll just be crying in our coffee,' says Michael Verderame, as he sits outside CC's Coffeehouse on Esplanade Avenue, one of the usual meeting places for his fellow grass-roots supporters when they were working to elect former Democratic Presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich ('Off and Running,' Jan. 20). Verderame happens to be drinking tea at the moment, but the point remains the same: There is no joy in Mudville for Louisiana Democrats. Now is the winter of their discontent in this bleak post-election season. How many different ways can they say it? It sucks to lose.

'I'm still trying to wrap my mind around what happened. Whatever we were doing, it wasn't working. The really committed idealists don't seem to win these primaries,' Verderame says of Kucinich and the only solidly anti-war candidate's baffling flameout. 'I'm still kinda stunned, and I'm trying to figure out what I'll do next.'

One area Verderame might look into is electoral reform. 'The only way to put these conspiracy theories out of business is to have a transparent voting system that leaves a clear paper trail,' he says with a trace of his old enthusiasm. Although he had been a Kucinich supporter before the primaries, Verderame did spend the morning of the election day standing on the street corner waving a Kerry sign before going home to watch the returns on TV. 'I'll tell you, this Bush administration is going to be so much worse than the last one. Bush is going to make war on the cities that voted against him. He plays for keeps, that guy.'

Many of the formerly active grass-roots Democratic supporters share Verderame's lugubrious worldview. Tina Thompson, who had been one of the leaders of the first Kerry group that had emerged out of the meetups and had traveled to New Hampshire to help her candidate in that primary, eventually relinquished her campaign responsibilities in the early summer when people arrived from the national Kerry office to set up headquarters on Canal Street. Thompson also reports that the local Dean supporters and the Kerry supporters made peace and common cause once it was clear Kerry had the nomination, the core Dean people thus swelling the ranks of the Kerry team. With so many new people working for Kerry, Thompson saw there were more than enough activists to take her place and so decided to pull back from the campaign for reasons concerning both her business and her health. Her early intensive work on the local Kerry campaign had used up so much of her time and energy that she felt she needed to return to her own life and let the others take care of John Kerry.

'I did a lot of research, and I still believe in John Kerry as a person and as a politician. I still believe he is the only one who could beat Bush. I also believe there is a lot to John Kerry. As a person he is complex and so intelligent, and Š he is kinda stiff,' allows Thompson. 'There is just so much to him that it's too much for most voters to comprehend when it comes to the issues and all there is to a candidate. And I just don't know what else we grass-roots activists could have done to make that clear to the average voters.'

Thompson still believes in grass-roots activism as the heart and soul of democracy. 'For me, this may have been a once-in-a-lifetime thing,' she says. 'There are other groups that formed and are still working. So it's possible the fight will build up again, but I don't see anything happening for me in the next 12 months. There is just so much going on in my life, right now.'

One of the ongoing grass-roots activist groups that this presidential election has birthed is Kerry Roots, which is a database maintained by Alan and Deborah Langhoff. (The current Web site address www.kerryroots.com will soon change to www.LaRoots.net.) This independent group had campaigned for Kerry during the election, and now keeps the activist momentum going by publishing an online newsletter that goes to approximately 5,000 people in Louisiana for the purpose of sparking discussions on ideas that Kerry espoused and also to keep people involved in the political process. Kerry Roots has sent around a petition to collect signatures, asking a local radio affiliate to broadcast Air America. A thousand people signed, and the Langhoffs hope this will convince a local radio station that New Orleans needs to hear from Al Franken.

Kerry Roots has also alerted its readers to what is perhaps the most purely New Orleanian response to the Democrats' defeat in the presidential election. A group organized by attorneys Buddy and Annie Spell plan to throw a big, noisy party -- a jazz funeral for democracy, in fact -- on inauguration day, starting in Congo Square and ending in Washington Square. The Treme Brass Band will play, as will the Panorama Jazz Band, Leigh 'Little Queenie' Harris and others. Supporters include Pax Christi, LaRouche Democrats and Raging Grannies. Interested persons may visit www.jazzfuneralfordemocracy.com

Judging from the responses to his Web site, Buddy Spell estimates that about 3,000 people will come -- many of them pouring in from San Francisco, Chicago and Madison, Wisc., to offer solidarity with those New Orleans Democrats clinging to a little blue island in the midst of a big red state.

Corner Still Hanging

In January, bar owner Joseph Glasper Jr., known around the Treme as Papa Joe, shot and killed beer vendor Richard Gullette. The incident prompted the Alcohol and Beverage Control board to revoke the license for Glasper's establishment, Joe's Cozy Corner. That decision raised questions about whether the city was losing a priceless jazz venue or shuttering a public nuisance ('Down on the Corner,' May 18).

The bar itself remains open pending final appeal. Just a few weeks ago, however, that case received a grave blow when Glasper went to trial on second-degree murder charges in front of Judge Raymond Bigelow. His attorneys argued that Glasper had killed Gullette in self-defense, and the jury asked the judge for clear definitions of manslaughter and self-defense as they deliberated. After six hours' time, the jury sent out a note asking Bigelow to be lenient in sentencing Glasper -- it was signed by all 12 jurors. They then issued a verdict of manslaughter -- a lesser crime committed in 'sudden passion or heat of blood,' according to Louisiana law. The recommended sentencing range is 0 to 40 years; Glasper remains under house arrest until he's sentenced in March.

Hard Scrabble

The player who claimed the $25,000 first prize in the National Scrabble Championship that took place in New Orleans this past August, was not one of the local scrabblers, as hoped. Instead it was Trey Wright, a concert pianist from Los Angeles, who scrabbled through five days of 33 grueling rounds and made it to the top of the heap by playing such words as FEIJOA (an evergreen shrub), ZEBU (a domesticated ox) and CALUTRON (an electromagnetic device). Helen Joffe, the 'fearless leader' of the New Orleans Scrabble Club, did very well at the championship, winning 18 games. Her ferocity on the board pushed her National Scrabble Association (NSA) rating up 33 crucial points to 1661, bringing her ever closer to her goal of being the highest rated player in Louisiana. Bill Clark also raised his NSA rating, but Bill Giblin dropped a few.

The biggest non-story of the event was Keith Savage who, after months of intense solitary preparation, left the championship at the end of the first day having played only eight games. Savage still holds the highest rating in the state at 1693, but his abbreviated performance at the nationals brought him down from his previous high of 1770. At the time John Williams, the president of the NSA, was considering a sanction against Savage because his premature departure from the competition threw off the tournament's calibration of who plays whom in which round. Furthermore, just about any scrabbler would regard as unsporting a player who drops out of competition simply to protect his official NSA rating from being damaged by an apparent losing streak.

In the end, Williams did not take any action with regard to Savage's disappearance. 'For one thing, it's only speculation that he dropped out because he wasn't doing well,' says Williams. 'We could never prove that or get him to admit it. And besides we had other priorities, so this guy was really just a speck in my universe.' The other priority for Williams during the tournament was that one of the visiting scrabble players ended up in jail. 'I can't get into details here,' says Williams. 'Let's just say it was for unScrabble-like behavior.'

For his part, Keith Savage acknowledges that he played only one day at the tournament before quitting, but that's as far as he will go on that subject. He says he is still training, still playing Scrabble mostly by himself, and that he was even thinking he might go visit his old friends at their regular Wednesday night meeting of the Scrabble Club. But he offers no explanation for dropping out of this national competition that he had been so focused on winning. 'There is nothing to talk about really,' Savage says. 'It's kinda complex, and that's why I don't want to get into it.' Savage hints around that his early departure from the NSA tournament might be part of a larger yet-to-be-revealed Scrabble strategy, involving perhaps a future competition some months hence. But more than that he won't say. 'Look there is no big mystery here, but if I say too much more about it, all the surprise will be gone,' he says. 'Check back with me in a few months, and I'll have a real story for you.'

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