A somber quiet hung in the air at Tulane late last month as a coalition of Louisiana environmental activists gathered to try and figure out how to wage a long-term war for the planet while the rest of the world focused on the war against terrorism.
No one wanted to say so publicly, but just about everyone agreed that the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- and the Bush administration's declaration of war against terrorist cells and states -- is perhaps a larger setback for the environmental movement than the election of oilmen George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Neil Armingean, environmental director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and one of the architects of the name Cancer Alley, is usually never at a loss for words -- but even he realized that the environmental battles, which seemed so important a month ago, must for now take a back seat.
"Of course there is only one story in the media coverage now," he says. "That's as it should be."
Still, Armingean expresses two concerns for the immediate future. One involves funding for environmental initiatives such as coastal restoration. Any chance of obtaining $300 million for wetlands recovery or any amount for the Conservation And Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the CARA bill, may be dead for the foreseeable future. Second, in the effort to put together the economic resources for a war effort against terrorism, environmental programs may well be scrapped.
"The environment will be the first thing to get cut," he says. "My concern is, will the environment be sacrificed in the name of national defense? No matter how or when this war ends, the environmental issues we all care about will still be here."
Among the major issues on everyone's mind as they tried to concentrate on the Tulane program was the call for an investigation of Louisiana's version of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). In a letter dated Sept. 6, a coalition of environmental groups asked the governor and EPA to investigate pollution permit violations and alleged conflicts of interest at DEQ.
"It has been apparent for some time that there are fundamental problems at the agency and that it is apparently failing to adequately protect the health and environmental well being of the people and resources of our state," the letter says, citing alleged leakage of toxic waste from the Woodside Landfill in Livingston Parish, serious pollution permit violations in the case of North American Gas in Bossier Parish, and allegations of conflicts of interest involving DEQ employees.
"These are not mere matters of differing philosophy or politics -- they are real and they pose a significant potential for damage," the letter says. "At a minimum, we believe the state must conduct a thorough and credible investigation of all phases of DEQ's business. Given the scope and gravity of the reported problems, we believe that this investigation should be led by the Inspector General or the Legislative Auditor rather than by anyone inside the agency."
The letter was signed by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, the Gulf Restoration Network, the Alliance for Affordable Energy, the League of Women Voters, and the Mississippi River Basin Alliance (the Tulane event's conference sponsor).
The state and federal response came this past week. Gov. Mike Foster issued an executive order calling on DEQ to communicate any potential health effects to the public. The state legislative auditor announced a performance audit of the agency. And EPA is apparently launching a criminal probe into the alleged conflicts of interest, according to Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.
"These are the right first steps," Davis says. "But at the end of the day, we still have a crisis in this state, a crisis of confidence, a crisis of accountability. It will not be solved by criminal probes, or merely by ethical probes. It's time we start insisting on propriety as a minimum level of job performance."
Some in the environmental community maintain there is something about this story that is not just typical Louisiana political patronage and corruption -- and that it merits attention, even when international events dominate the news. "This is not like giving your brother-in-law a boat registration or a roofing contract for a school," says Russell Butz, an organizer for the Sierra Club. "We're talking about peoples' health. This is serious.