Not Easy Being Green, But We’re Trying
The Satya Interview with Paul
New Orleans. Photo by Tim Gorski
Prior to Katrina, the Gulf Coast communities and
ecosystems suffered tremendously from the degradation of wetlands and
the huge environmental
burdens on soil, air and water from petroleum, chemical and manufacturing
industries. In Katrina’s wake, a number of groups are partnering
together to structure relief and rebuilding solutions that don’t
contribute to these problems. GreenRelief, organized by the Healthy
Building Network and the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, is
an example of such a partnership. Working with groups like Advocates
for Environmental and Human Rights and the Deep South Center for Environmental
Justice, GreenRelief encourages and assists hurricane relief efforts
that promote environmental restoration, environmental health and social
justice to achieve the goals of restoring community and environment,
and rebuilding homes and the economy.
Paul Bogart, Campaigns Coordinator for the Healthy Building Network, spoke with
Sangamithra Iyer about the challenges and the importance of rebuilding green.
First, can you tell us about the Healthy Building Network and how GreenRelief
Traditionally green building practitioners have focused on energy usage and indoor
air quality, the primary focus of the green building movement. Healthy Building
Network was started in 2000 to integrate other environmental health concerns
into green building [concentrating on] the environmental impacts from the production
of materials. A material like vinyl that is produced primarily in Louisiana damages
local communities and local ecosystems. The impact of vinyl has been most felt
in the area of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley.”
When the hurricanes hit the Gulf region, it dramatically affected an area that
the Healthy Building Network has had a long interest in. We felt we had a special
responsibility and a special connection to that region through our work and wanted
to do something to recognize that commitment and positively address some of the
issues the region is facing now in rebuilding.
What are your concerns and visions for the rebuilding process?
Our concerns are that many of the same problems that were present in the Gulf
region are likely to be replicated in the rebuilding process. That is, the poor
are going to be given substandard housing, built from the same materials that
created the environmental justice problems that existed prior to the hurricanes.
Our vision is to work in partnership with Advocates for Environmental and Human
Rights and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice to reflect the principles
of the environmental justice movement in the rebuilding process. So the questions
of where you rebuild and what you rebuild with are central to us.
Another big concern about the rebuilding effort is gentrification and the displacement
of low-income families and people of color. Are you addressing this? How do we
establish safeguards to prevent this?
A number of groups have articulated the principle that those who were displaced
should have a right to return. We completely agree and endorse that. They should
be able to return to a community that is safe and healthy. This is going to require
very detailed rigorous monitoring of the conditions on the ground. It is going
to require a high level of communication, so as people go in temporarily to get
their belongings, they know what the risks are, are adequately protected, and
they have a level of certainty when they go back permanently that those issues
have been addressed.
As for gentrification, it is a big concern. It’s always been the case in
any rebuilding that the needs of the wealthy are addressed ahead of those who
do not have the means or the voice to call for it. That is the idea of rebuilding
green and healthy housing for lower income people—they should not be shortchanged
simply because they do not have the means to call for it.
What does rebuilding green mean?
I think that is a really good question to ask national groups, green building
organizations, and corporations. There is going to be quite a rush to call everything
green. So the question of what is green is really going to be important. Are
we going to say that because low-income housing is built with energy star appliances,
it is green? I would argue that it isn’t, and is only a part of the answer.
The definition of green is very much in play and that’s why local groups
have to be paramount in this discussion. As you know, when corporations get involved,
they are all too happy to paint every product they sell as green.
Can you give a snapshot of some of the environmental hazards that need
addressed in Katrina’s aftermath?
The scary thing is that nobody really knows what happens when some of these chemicals
are mixed together. Nobody has an accurate assessment of just what was spilled,
in what quantities, and where. That all underscores the need for a rigorous program
of monitoring, not only by the EPA, but also by a nongovernmental watchdog group.
As you mentioned, green and equitable building initiatives may be deterred by
corporate interests. How can local groups empower themselves and take a major
role in rebuilding their communities?
Obviously the most powerful weapon is information. Getting in touch with the
Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Advocates for Environmental and
Human Rights, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Community Labor United, Acorn—all
those groups based in the Gulf that are organizing to give voice to those communities
and individuals to make sure that doesn’t happen.
What can people do to help?
I think lending their voice on a national level is equally as critical [as getting
involved with the local groups]. This inevitably is going to slip off the front
pages and into the back pages if it is covered at all in the national media.
As the floodwaters recede, so will the television cameras. People need to stay
abreast through those organizations and make their voices heard so there is a
national call and a national level of accountability in the cleanup and the rebuilding.
To learn more about GreenRelief visit greenrelief.net. For a list of organizations
providing green resources visit www.seen.org/pages/Katrina/green-relief.shtml.