|Katrina unsheathed the future - the future in store for all of us if we don't reinstate a reality-based government that protects its citizens rather than its own interests.|
When the all-clear goes out for New Orleans and environs, with government spokesmen declaring the devastated area officially open for business, my suggestion is, hold onto your protective gear. The U.S. economy signed a non-aggression pact with cancer a long time ago and the Bush administration has honored it more enthusiastically than any other.
The term "toxic gumbo" barely does justice to the horror of pollutants unleashed on this city at the mouth of the Mississippi surrounded by petrochemical plants, in the heart of what was already known as Cancer Alley.
Writing on Alternet.com, Nicole Makris gives this hellish catalogue of the contaminants in New Orleans' water since Katrina, as per Jim Elder, former head of the EPA's Drinking Water and Groundwater unit: "Submerged automobiles are leaking oil, gasoline and other chemicals into the floodwater; asbestos that may have been contained in old buildings has been released by the flooding and the collapse of buildings; raw sewage, decaying body parts, offshore oil rigs and possibly ruptured pipelines all pave the way for a myriad of serious and potentially fatal medical conditions."
And Michelle Chen of New Standard (newstandardnews.net), cites "more than 40 oil spills reported in Louisiana by the Coast Guard last week and thousands of chemical containers spotted bobbing in the region's floodwaters," contributing to "a cesspool of toxic chemicals, human waste, decomposing flesh and surprises yet to be discovered in the sediment that still blankets much of the city."
And of course, as Elder pointed out, the components of this devil's brew may be understood individually, but in combination, no one knows what to expect: "You're gonna have so many of these chemicals interacting, and most of these chemicals have only been tested one at a time," he told Makris. "They have never looked at the synergistic effect of all these chemicals on human health."
All of which - and so much more - adds up to a national nightmare that's just beginning. We can only let loose a collective wail of dismay for the region's scattered survivors, who want to go home, and who desperately need leadership committed to helping them and telling the truth. I fear what they'll get instead is a smiley-face pasted over toxic lies.
The Associated Press, for instance, moved a story a few days ago on the cleanup of the Big Easy that was so top-heavy with "encouraging" comments from government officials and others, so oblivious to the cries of alarm emanating from environmentalists, I felt the spirit of Tinker Bell whispering between every line, if you wish hard enough, you'll make it so.
In a statement that reeks of politics, Jerry Fenner of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told AP: "All the data to date show there should not be any long-term health risks to the population."
The assertion sits unchallenged in the middle of the story, signaling, I fear, more craven reporting to come. I watch in awe as yet again the media hoist the smiley-face flag of credulous deference to governmental utterances, as though we've never been misled before.
Whatever happened to media skepticism? The Bush administration has politicized every nook and cranny of the Executive Branch of government, rooting out impartial professionalism as though it were an arm of al-Qaida. Can't we journalists remember this from one story to the next?
Can't we remember, for instance, that the EPA, under pressure from the White House, lied to New Yorkers a few days after 9/11, assuring them the air was safe to breathe when the dust in the air "was as caustic as oven cleaner, possibly as caustic as drain cleaner," according to Suzanne Mattei of the Sierra Club, speaking on the California public radio station KQED's "Forum" show. "They issued false assurance of safety to the public because they wanted to reopen Wall Street."
As many as 75 percent of New York's 9/11 rescue workers - the cops and firefighters and other heroes - are now debilitated, according to Hugh Kaufman, a 35-year veteran of the EPA. They are reportedly suffering such illnesses such as sarcoidosis, asthma, reactive airway disorders and chronic coughs. "They're sick as dogs and starting to die off," he said.
Kaufman, who has become a whistleblower about his politicized agency and charges it with concealment of data and basic failure to do its job, sees the same cavalier disregard for the health of rescue workers and others in New Orleans now that happened in New York in 2001.
Katrina unsheathed the future - the future in store for all of us if we don't reinstate a reality-based government that protects its citizens rather than its own interests.
Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at [email protected] or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com