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November 2005
It’s Not Easy Being Green, But We’re Trying
The Satya Interview with Paul Bogart

 

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 came about?
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 to be 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.

 

 


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