Government Has Legal and Moral Responsibility to Protect Returning Residents, Groups Say

WASHINGTON (March 15, 2006) -- The Environmental Protection Agency has a legal and moral responsibility to clean up the toxic contamination blanketing New Orleans in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a coalition of more than a dozen civil rights, religious and environmental justice groups said today. They petitioned the agency to take immediate action.

The groups cited a recent analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) of the EPA's neighborhood-by-neighborhood contaminant readings, which found high levels of arsenic, lead, and dangerous petroleum compounds across the city at levels that should have triggered a mandatory cleanup or additional investigation. For example, more than a third of the EPA samples had arsenic levels that exceed the threshold level requiring an investigation or cleanup. (The report, test results and maps are available here.)

"It's been six months since Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, and the EPA has not lifted a finger to clean up the toxic mess that threatens the health of returning residents," said Hillary Shelton of the NAACP, a coalition member. "This is a scandal of major proportions."

The groups, which include the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Oxfam America, Sojourners, and the National Black Environmental Justice Network, issued a letter today to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, imploring his agency to clean up toxic sediment and mold. (Download the letter.) The coalition was joined today by two other major religious organizations, the National Council of Churches and the United Methodist Church, at a press briefing.

The groups also pointed out that while the hurricanes devastated a range of Crescent City neighborhoods, low-income communities were hit disproportionately.

"New Orleans residents in the poorest sections of town lived closer to toxic industrial sites, so it's no surprise that's where the highest contamination levels are," said Vernice Miller-Travis of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. "These people have to clean up their neighborhoods on their own. They have been fighting for environmental justice for years and are still getting nothing from the federal government but false assurances that everything is OK."

The requirements for cleaning up New Orleans are found in the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) -- which is commonly known as the Superfund law -- the Clean Water Act, and related regulations.

The ranking member of the House Environment and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee took note.

"The laws on the books say the federal government has the responsibility to clean up," said Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.). "The EPA just can't ignore the law when it's inconvenient. What do we have to do to get this administration to do its job and protect public health?"

The organizations that signed the letter to Administrator Johnson include: ACORN, New Orleans; Advocates for Environmental Human Rights; W. Haywood Burns Environment Education Center, Albany, New York; Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Dillard University, New Orleans; Earthjustice, Washington D.C.; Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans; Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, Washington, D.C.; Louisiana Bucket Brigade, New Orleans; Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Baton Rouge; NAACP, Washington Bureau; National Black Environmental Justice Network; Natural Resources Defense Council; 9/11 Environmental Action, New York; Oxfam America; Physicians for Social Responsibility-Louisiana; and Sojourners, Washington, D.C.