Nicole Makris

Exporting Homophobia

When the U.S. State Department released its annual report on human rights on Wednesday, countries like Iran, Pakistan and Zimbabwe scored very poorly, as they have for many years past.

But trumpeting these countries' shoddy rights' records was apparently no disincentive to prevent the United States from joining up with them earlier this year to ban two pioneering gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights groups from participating in human rights discussions at the United Nations.

At the end of January, these homophobic nations voted to keep the two groups from participating in the Economic And Social Council (ECOSOC), the only body at the United Nations that allows nongovernmental organizations to distribute materials and observe its meetings. This privilege is known as "consultative status" and, of the 2,700 groups that enjoy it, not one of them is an organization working exclusively for queer human rights.

Evidently, the groups' attempt to join the conversation wasn't even worth discussing. Rather than letting the groups present their case to the council, their applications were rejected out of hand and without review, a move the Associated Press called "almost unprecedented."

While the council rejected only two groups, the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) and LBL, the Danish Association of Gays and Lesbians, the vote was viewed as a snub to queer human rights workers around the world. And having the United States weigh in on the opposing side only added gravitas to the position. As Scott Long of Human Rights Watch put it, "Like it or not, the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world. So the example that the U.S. sets is an example for other nations."

Like it or not indeed. Slowly and steadily, it seems, the Bush administration is waging a quiet war on homosexuals abroad in the name of Christianity by pushing so-called "Christian values."

None of this will surprise those who follow the Bush administration's stance on anything queer-related. The current administration's role in striking the fear of God in opponents of same-sex marriage around the 2004 election certainly hasn't gone unnoticed by queer rights groups in the United States, and neither has its cozy friendship with evangelical Christians, who often fault homosexuality for contributing to the "moral decline" of the nation.

While queer Americans certainly have their battles cut out for them, the U.S. vote sent an ominous message of intolerance and, essentially, abandonment to queers in other countries by siding with nations like Sudan and Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by torture, imprisonment and, on occasion, death.

Human rights advocates see the ECOSOC vote as another element of the Bush administration's pro-Evangelical, anti-gay agenda, and a powerful one at that. "By denying these groups a voice in the U.N.'s human rights processes, the government has effectively denied a place for LGBT people globally," Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), wrote in an email.

Long said queer human rights groups face consistent opposition from what he calls "the trinity" -- the Vatican, conservative Islamic groups and Evangelical Christian groups. "In domestic policy, the U.S. government and its Evangelical allies are anti-Islamic," he said, "but internationally, they're happy to make alliances."

Such alliances sometimes support governments and organizations that are, as Long puts it, "violently homophobic." Recently in Iran, two gay teenagers were sentenced to hanging on trumped-up charges of kidnapping and rape. Iran, Egypt and other nations also routinely engage in the torture of homosexuals by subjecting them to physical "examinations" that "prove" gayness, threaten individuals with unwanted hormone treatments and perform state-sanctioned undercover sting operations to find homosexuals, who are often subjected to violent police beatings and torture, as Doug Ireland reported for In These Times.

Long says the United States has long since lost its moral standing from which to discourage these practices. "When you have the biggest, most powerful country in the world sanctioning torture, whether it's because of terrorism or anti-gay agendas, it sets a climate that torture is OK," he said.

Siding with human rights-abusing countries is only the administration's most overt anti-gay action. More subtle, and far more insidious, is its funding of AIDS relief and prevention work. The government's requirement that any groups that receive international AIDS funding follow its strict and naive policy of the ABCs -- Abstinence, Being Faithful and Condoms -- the United States has excluded many organizations working with GLBT individuals.

"The U.S. government is doing nothing to ensure that any attention is being paid to the spread of the epidemic among men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women, particularly in Africa," said IGLHRC's Ettelbrick. "This negligence could sabotage the entire HIV prevention effort overseas."

In 2003, Bush introduced his much-touted President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), in which designated $15 billion for AIDS relief and prevention abroad over five years. (For perspective, he's already asked for $72 billion for the Iraq war for this year alone -- the running tab stands at about $400 billion, according to the Christian Science Monitor). Attached to this money was a clear set of evangelical values referred to by abortion rights activists as the "Global Gag Rule," because it forbids funding to any organization that so much as mentions abortion as an option to its clients.

The gag rule is far-reaching; it refuses funding if an organization uses it own funds to provide abortion, educates the public about abortion, lobbies for its government to legalize abortion or even refers a client to an abortion-providing clinic. Organizations that don't sign the Global Gag Rule can lose access to contraceptives, including condoms.

Just as there is no link between Iraq and 9/11, so there is no link between abortion and AIDS. But under the Bush model of AIDS prevention, even the mention of abortion has caused closures of health clinics in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, where AIDS relief is desperately needed. According to The Global Gag Rule Impact Project, the two leading family planning providers in Kenya have lost one-third of their staff due to funding cuts, and Zambia's leading provider has been forced to cut its budget by 25 percent.

In addition to forbidding the discussion of abortion, the strings attached to PEPFAR money are decidedly anti-gay. The ABC program emphasizes abstinence until marriage as the only way to prevent the spread of AIDS, yet clearly excludes homosexuals from the right to marry. The United States has also funded groups like Samaritan's Purse, which was busted for proselytizing while helping out earthquake victims in El Salvador, to assist in its abstinence education policies, and Exodus International, an organization that calls homosexuality a disease that must be "cured."

"Groups are getting funded in countries like Zimbabwe and Singapore to be like Focus on the Family or Concerned Women for America," says Long, referring to two of the most prominent conservative Christian groups in the United States.

The combination of apparent homophobia in our government's policies and the lack of a plan for or acknowledgement of GLBT individuals at risk for HIV is dually problematic for homosexuals abroad. In a country that punishes homosexuality with imprisonment, as Iran and Egypt do, negotiating health care, or even getting information on health risks, is essentially unthinkable.

Then too, in many nations, the sex trade is peppered with transgendered individuals; men living as women and women living as men. In homophobic settings, trans people, pushed to the margins of society, often engage in prostitution to make a living, as there is much higher demand for transsexual men on the streets than there is within, say, the copper mining industry.

But in the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003, Congress specified that "no funds made available to carry out this Act … may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking." Essentially, this means the United States won't support any organization that "condones prostitution," which means sex workers, often at the highest risk for HIV infection, are excluded from the benefits of PEPFAR funds as well.

Though the numbers from the U.N. vote indicate substantial support for gay rights -- five of 15 countries voted to allow the gay groups into ECOSOC, and Germany publicly objected to the vote -- advocates stress that U.S. support is crucial if queer human rights are to gain traction globally.

"[Consultative] status is the required means to have a voice in the human rights processes of the U.N., so the government's vote effectively has denied a place for LGBT people globally," said Paula Ettelbrick.

The State Department has not issued a statement on its ECOSOC vote, and calls to a spokesperson were not returned. But State Department Spokesman Edgar Vasquez did tell the AP, "We did not vote against the group because they are a gay rights group. The United States remains a champion of human rights for all in the world and committed to the right of individual freedom of expression."

Be that as it may, by preventing these groups in particular from expressing their views, the Bush administration has reinforced the perception that it is waging global war on homosexuality. By propping up values of abstinence until marriage and prostitution as a sin -- despite the economy that supports it -- and in entirely ignoring HIV's still-prominent role in queer communities, it seems the Bush administration conveniently ignores those that do not wish to be "Christianized," with devastating consequences across the globe.

The Other Nuclear Option

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch isn't exactly known for his strong environmental record. He's a staunch Republican who, in addition to serving as a senator since 1976, plays the piano and has made a little cash on the side as a Christian recording artist.

He's described the Kyoto Accords as a waste of time, and he's one of the Senate's most vocal supporters of the Bush administration's energy and environmental policies. He's for drilling at ANWR and other protected sites, supports road-building in wilderness areas, and is rated as one of the senators least likely to vote for legislation supported by the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and other environmental groups. What's more, he uses the Republican buzz-term "environmental extremism" like it's going out of style.

So it came as some surprise when, along with Utah's other senator, Robert Bennett, and Nevada senators Harry Reid and John Ensign, Hatch sided with environmental groups, and pissed off the nuclear energy lobby in the process, by presenting the Spent Nuclear Fuel On-Site Storage Security Act of 2005 last year.

The legislation requires that the nuclear waste produced at commercial power plants around the country remain where it was created until the federal government makes good on its now 24-year-old plan to move all of the nation's nuclear waste to an underground storage facility, where it can live out its deadly radioactive half-lives without threatening nearby populations.

Nuclear power has again become a seductive alternative to oil and coal as a fuel source as America struggles to find enough energy to meet consumer demand. The nation's reliance on nuclear power as a source of energy has steadily increased since the 50s, when then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower assured Americans that nuclear technology could be used for good. In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, Bush announced his intention to rely on "clean, safe nuclear energy" to fight our national oil addiction. But one aspect of its energy production remains the same: Nuclear waste never goes away, and the U.S. government still doesn't have a viable plan to get rid of it.

Hatch's support of the on-site storage bill is part of his ongoing opposition to the creation of a "temporary" above-ground waste storage facility in Skull Valley, Utah, a vast stretch of Utah desert approximately 40 miles east of Salt Lake City. His vehement resistance to storing nuclear waste in his state is just one example of an ongoing headache faced by the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: everyone wants to find a "safe" place to store the nation's 77,000 tons of radioactive nuclear waste. It's just that no one wants it in their backyard.

Where is the West Desert?

Hatch, along with other legislators, public officials, local activists and members of the Native American Goshute tribe -- on whose land the temporary waste site would be located -- have fought for years to keep radioactive waste out of western Utah, where citizens already suffer from severe radiation-related illnesses due to nuclear fallout of bomb testing during the cold war. It's fine, they agree, to want to find a safe place to permanently store the nation's nuclear waste. But why risk an accident by transporting the stuff twice: once to the temporary facility and then again to the permanent one?

Utah's own "environmental extremists" beg the question further: Why does this waste keep getting made if we have nowhere to put it?

"Ultimately, we have to stop producing this stuff," says Pete Litser, executive director of the Shundahai Network, a Utah-based coalition of activists and native Americans opposed to nuclear proliferation. "We're creating hazardous material we don't know what to do with."

Charged with creating a plan for the disposal of "spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear reactors and high-level radioactive waste from national defense activities" by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, legislators came up with what seemed like a great idea: Put the waste somewhere sparsely populated with few environmental regulations, amidst good, patriotic U.S. citizens that rarely ask questions and are happy to help out Uncle Sam. One of those flat, square-like states where there aren't any cute owls or polar bears to mourn or big trees to sit in.

Enter the lower Great Basin, also known as Utah's West Desert, or Eastern Nevada: a region of the country so unremarkable no one even knows what to call it. Land of the nuclear test site, numerous bombing grounds and military bases, and some of the country's most heinous polluters, like MagCorp, which holds the title of "nation's worst toxic air polluter." It is also the site of the government's proposed permanent nuclear waste storage facility: Yucca Mountain, where scientists' insistence that seismic activity and groundwater levels make it unsafe for waste storage has delayed the site's opening indefinitely.

Inconsequential to most Americans, the "west desert" area is also the site of numerous Native American reservations, with thousands of miles of land given to the Western Shoshone and Goshute tribes in treaties. For this reason, Litser's Shundahai Network is fighting the development of both Skull Valley and Yucca Mountain.

Margene Bullcreek, who lives on the Goshute reservation less than two miles from where the temporary waste facility would be built, claims that her people's culture of self-reliance and harmony with nature is threatened by the shady politics of the "deal" to store the waste on the tribe's land in exchange for much-needed money to improve tribe members' quality of life.

"We're saying this is racism," says Bullcreek, the tribal leader of those opposed to storing nuclear waste on the tribe's land. "I'm concerned that it will affect our health. But my big, big fear is about how the federal government is taking away treaty land." If this encroachment on Goshute land does occur, it would hardly mark the first time the government has ignored tribal treaties for its own convenience. But filling Skull Valley with radioactive waste is a move that will have profound health and environmental consequences for thousands of years.

A "voluntary community" resists

In the early '90s, aware that the Yucca Mountain project was behind schedule, the DOE began looking for places to temporarily store nuclear waste. The Department partnered with Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of eight utility companies that own nuclear power plants, to find a site for temporary storage.

PFS claims it has met all the requirements needed to store the waste on Goshute tribal land in Skull Valley, Utah. According to federal regulations, locating a temporary storage facility requires that the owners of the land serve as "a willing host." PFS claims that the Goshute tribe is not only a willing host, but a "voluntary community." In fact, says PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin, it was the tribe that approached them about locating the waste dump on their land.

"The Goshute tribe contacted one of the PFS members," says Martin. "They said, 'If you're considering places to put your facility, please consider our reservation.'"

But members within the tribe claim that the "deal" struck with PFS wasn't in keeping with tribal governance processes. Bullcreek, who has spearheaded the opposition of PFS's plan, says the functioning tribal leadership is corrupt, that attempts to hold the tribe's regular elections have been delayed five times, and that Leon Bear, the acting chairman of the Goshute tribe, signed a lucrative agreement with PFS without the permission of the majority of the tribe's adult members.

"A week ago we filed a lawsuit with the Bureau of Indian Affairs about our tribe's problems with leadership, corruption and bribery, and how our tribal members have been hurt by this process," Margene Bullcreek told AlterNet. Now, her allies within the tribe are suffering more than ever, she claims, because the money that has been given to the tribe from PFS has not been dispersed among the tribal members. Leon Bear did not return requests to be interviewed for this article.

"Mr. Bear has kept any monies that have been given to the tribe to himself and his supporters," says Bullcreek. "He's got new trucks, new clothes -- the rest of us are back in the '80s. We need health care, we need education and we need homes." But, she protests, not at the expense of the land which was given to them as long as grass grows and water runs, as the U.S. government promised.

"No matter what, there's no guarantee against man-made accidents," Bullcreek said of the potential health and safety hazards of nuclear waste. "We can't sacrifice our land; we can't sacrifice our culture and who we are as indigenous people. We've done that enough already."

A rocky future for a permanent facility

The DOE examined several options for dealing with nuclear waste and finally decided on storing the stuff deep underground, where it would ideally be safe for at least 10,000 years, even though scientists estimate it will be at least 170,000 years before the waste is no longer dangerous.

Opponents of the underground repository at Yucca Mountain, a rural, out of the way location in southern Nevada, argue that science has never been a concern for the federal government when it comes to nuclear waste disposal. According to a growing cadre of scientists and legislators, Yucca Mountain is geologically unfit to be the repository of the country's 77,000 tons of nuclear waste.

In addition to questions about its geological viability, the Yucca Mountain site has been plagued by countless other glitches. Internal whistleblowers have come forward throughout the construction process, claiming that technical safety and performance processes were not up to par.

Originally slated to open in 1998, design flaws, contracting problems, and numerous lawsuits have delayed the opening of the repository indefinitely. Nevada Sen. Reid and other opponents of the site have alleged numerous times that the DOE and NRC are simply stalling, and that storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is so obviously unsafe that it is only a matter of time before the idea is scrapped completely.

Setbacks and problems at the Yucca site so stymied the DOE's plans for nuclear waste storage that the department finally decided to work with private waste management companies to find a place to "temporarily" store the waste.

Upon passing the responsibility of finding temporary storage to PFS, the federal government essentially washed its hands of the responsibility to deal with the more difficult aspect of storing the waste. It is now the task of PFS to assure that the storage containers, transportation of the spent fuel and location of the site meet federal standards.

"We've had to prove that the storage containers and site could withstand potential disasters, like earthquakes, a plane crashing into [the storage tanks], everything," said PFS spokeswoman Martin. "Everything has to be approved by the NRC (nuclear regulatory commission). We won. All those specifications have been approved and certified by the NRC."

Though PFS claims it has passed each test, the company has still not received a license, an oversight Martin claims is due to "administrative complications" at the NRC. Recently, six of the eight partners in PFS have pulled out of the project, claiming that battles blocking the approval of the site have so protracted the process that by the time the facility is approved, the companies will no longer need it.

The plan is no plan

Though high-level waste comprises the smallest amount of waste produced and waiting for storage, it is the most dangerous and most difficult to dispose of. While the nuclear industry would like to downplay just how much of this stuff needs a safe place to hide, there are at least 40,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste in the United States awaiting disposal, and thousands more tons are produced each year. So from the get-go, if Yucca Mountain were to miraculously open tomorrow, it would already be more than half full and filling all the more quickly if the Bush administration gets its way.

The administration has recently launched a "Nuclear Power 2010" program, introduced in 2002 by the DOE as a "joint government/industry cost-shared effort." The program calls for the construction of new nuclear power plants and determine new regulatory processes. There are currently 103 working nuclear power plants in the United States, and many of these plants are running out of room to store spent nuclear fuel. In the meantime, spent nuclear fuel rods and other hazardous material sit stored where it was created, often in leaking or improper storage casks, waiting to be moved to its final resting place.

While angling for short-sighted plans and ill-conceived proposals, the government has essentially ignored other methods of disposing nuclear waste. Among the more promising methods are two kinds of chemical reactions that can reduce the radioactivity of the waste, and a third method involves using natural tectonic movement at the bottom of the sea to recycle the materials back into the Earth's mantle. Instead, the federal government is promoting sites like Skull Valley and Yucca Mountain as the best, final solution for radioactive material, despite the concerns of scientists and complaints of the area's residents.

Neck Deep in Toxic Gumbo

As the government drags its feet, the unknown number of human bodies decomposing in the New Orleans floodwaters are becoming hosts for a horde of diseases. The bodies continue to fester and rot, potentially contaminating the city they used to call home.

For now, clean-up efforts focus on the essentials: removing bodies and debris and draining the floodwaters. Health and human services secretary Mike Leavitt has declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf region, where bacteria and viruses are the most immediate threat to rescue personnel and residents, caused in no small part by all the hurricane's decomposing victims.

The Centers for Disease Control has reported four fatal instances of vibrio vulnificus, a cousin of cholera. Red Cross and other relief workers are struggling to prevent outbreaks related to salmonella, e. coli and other bacteria that cause nausea, diarrhea, and can lead to severe dehydration. There is also cause to fear the spread of hepatitis A, a virus that causes liver disease. But a real plan to assess the health problems that could plague the Gulf Coast for decades is noticeably absent.

Polluted Past

Pollution has been a major problem in Louisiana for decades before Hurricane Katrina hit. Reporter Ron Nixon coined the term "toxic gumbo" to describe the potent mix of waste that courses through the state. The Big Easy, perched at the mouth of the Mississippi River, is located at the narrow end of a funnel siphoning immense amounts of industrial, agricultural and human waste every day.

"Virtually anything could be in the water," said Jim Elder, the EPA's former National Director of Drinking Water and Groundwater. "I'm not sure that anywhere has ever seen all these chemicals put together in the same place. That's why people are referring to this as a toxic soup. I think that's a simple but apt description."

Elder says the many heavy industries based in Louisiana have been leaching chemicals into the soil and groundwater for decades. But Katrina stirred up an even deadlier mix of waste: 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.

Hazards to Heroes

Hugh Kaufman, who helped found the EPA and has worked for the agency for 35 years, was the chief EPA investigator for the post-9/11 emergency response. He's now a senior policy analyst for EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, and he's concerned about the millions of residents who may return to the new, toxic Louisiana and the rescue workers wading into the lethal stew.

"After 9/11, because the government did not do its job properly and provide the responders with the proper clothing and equipment -- like respirators -- now over 75 percent of the responders are sick as dogs," he said. "And they're starting to die off, four years after their heroic efforts in responding to 9/11.

"And I'm concerned the same thing is happening down in that region of the country," he continued, "where the responders are not provided respirators and the proper equipment to protect them from their exposures."

Given the government's already shoddy response to the disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi, Kaufman's concerns should raise many alarms. Where the World Trade Center became a deathtrap of poisonous chemicals, at least the site was relatively safe before the towers came down. Louisiana, however, has long been one of the country's most polluted areas.

The ongoing pollution of Louisiana's air, water and soil by oil refineries, hazardous waste, and whatever else has been dumped into the Mississippi River over the years have given the 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans the nickname "Cancer Alley."

The moniker is sadly justified. "The chemicals that are being manufactured, stored and disposed of, where all those chemical plants are in Southern Louisiana, can cause cancer," said Kaufman, who worked on thousands of pollution cases during his tenure with the EPA, including Love Canal. "And there are high cancer rates of people living and working near those areas. That's why it's called Cancer Alley."

Cornered in Cancer Alley

Like many of the New Orleans residents who survived the breakdown of government in the days following Katrina, most people living and working in the shadow of these industry giants -- among them Shell Oil, DuPont, Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil -- have two traits common among Americans in the South: They are poor, and they are black.

According to the U.S. Census, about 1 in 10 Americans live below the poverty line. In New Orleans, that number is closer to 1 in 4. According to Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University, Louisiana has the largest share of the nation's impoverished children, and about half of the children in New Orleans live at or below the poverty line.

Robert Bullard, a pioneering activist in the environmental justice movement, said it's no coincidence that Cancer Alley happens to belch its chemicals into black neighborhoods.

Together, Wright and Bullard examined the history of responses to emergencies in African American communities. "Over the last 25 years," Bullard said, "we've gotten all kinds of case studies showing that government tends to move slowly in relation to clean-up of health-threatening Superfund sites and facilities located in minority communities."

And families who live in Cancer Alley can't just pack up and move away from the polluted backyards of industry. A few communities have sued surrounding industry and won relocation, a process in which the offending industry pays to move community members away from the dangerous plumes and air pollutants it emits.

Although relocation is a victory, it also serves to fracture tightly knit communities by scattering people across the region. And all too often, families are relocated five miles down the road -- this time in the backyard of some other industry.

The CDC reports that the national average of cancer deaths per 10,000 people is 199.8. In Louisiana, the number is 230.4. The state's cancer mortality rate ranked second highest in the nation in 2003. And African Americans are more likely than whites to have and die from lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers -- all which have been linked to prolonged chemical exposure.

"In many cases, the government has not operated in the best interests of poor people and people of color when it comes to enforcing environmental laws," Bullard said. "The stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, that petrochemical corridor, is a hotbed for environmental racism cases. The struggle and the issues that a lot of communities in New Orleans will have to deal with now, in terms of contamination -- some of those battles were being fought before. And they will still be fought after this hurricane."

When the Water Recedes

Today, Bullard says, the issues of cleanup are larger and broader. Because of the hurricane, even affluent families were left homeless. "Now, you've leveled the playing field," Bullard said. "You're gonna have to have a lot of different, diverse folks at the table working together for the same thing. There has to be a silver lining, some type of opportunity out of this disaster.

Before any rebuilding can begin, federal, state and local governments have to work at "unwatering" the city.

"We had originally estimated about 80 days to unwater the city," said Alan Dooley of the United States Army Corp of Engineers. Dooley explained with an engineer's detail the process of re-establishing the levees. "It's looking a little more optimistic now."

Though the area may be dried out in less than 80 days, there's no telling when residents may be able to return to their homes -- if their homes are still standing.

Of those Gulf Coast residents who did not lose their houses, most of them will want to return home as soon as possible -- intuitively, once the floodwaters have been pumped and the streets drained.

Kaufman warns that this may be the worst idea yet. "The danger is actually worse when the water goes away, because you have hazardous materials more concentrated in muck and dust," said Kaufman. "People will more readily come back, and will try to clean their homes or porches. And they'll have toxic dust they'll be sweeping around. An they'll inhale it and ingest it. ... If there's no clean-up you have basically people living and trying to clean in the middle of the country's largest Superfund site."

The real danger of a breakfast of "toxic gumbo" is difficult to convey. Names like chlorobenzene, toluene, and hydrogen cyanide certainly sound dangerous, but explaining how prevalent and toxic they are is a daunting task. But EPA's Jim Elder believes if citizens don't push for a well-managed clean-up, the health effects of exposure will reveal themselves.

"Depending on the type of contamination, we could see every medical illness you can think of," Elder said. "Cancer of any type -- bladder, kidney, intestinal, lung, brain, skin cancer. ... The EPA has a list of regulated drinking water contaminants and what the health effects are of exceeding the standards. You can pick any one of those chemicals, and each of them could be present in the Gulf Coast area right now."

Even worse, the combined effects of all these chemicals is completely unknown. "You're gonna have so many of these chemicals interacting, and most of these chemicals have only been tested one at a time," Elder said. "They have never looked at the synergistic effect of all these chemicals on human health."

Cost to the Coast

The process of ensuring the health and safety of those who return to the areas affected by Katrina will take time and money, and might be the biggest clean-up effort ever for the EPA.

"To get a good handle on this, people are going to have to study the environmental impacts and human health effects on a broader scale than they did with 9/11," Elder said. "It's certainly on a broader scale than any of the recent disasters that I can think of in U.S. history."

As with the initial emergency response to the hurricane, the EPA, FEMA, and other agencies involved in the clean-up are under-funded and under-prepared for such a large undertaking.

"You have to have a major sampling assessment program. [People can return] when there has been a comprehensive sampling program that can give the all-clear that it's safe," said Kaufman. "There is no program in place that can even do that at the present time."

The Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Ledger reported that the storm damaged 31 Superfund sites and 466 chemical plants. Close to 400 calls came through the EPA and Coast Guard hotline to report oil and chemical spills, and clean-up workers continue to find empty containers that once housed hazardous material.

Kaufman believes it's just not a safe place to go home to yet. "Little kids walk around and get dirt in their mouths from their hands," he continued. "And it's not just New Orleans. It's all the areas where there were releases of hazardous material and sewage. The water being pumped out of New Orleans is now spreading that to Lake Ponchartrain, the Mississippi, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. It's expanding the area of contamination."

Even if there are serious health risks in returning home, it may be a difficult decision for evacuees to stay away. As Beverly Wright points out, even families that do have relatives nearby are living in extremely cramped quarters. Her extended family, for instance -- all 26 members -- is holed up at her inlaws' house in Baton Rouge.

But Elder and Kaufman maintain that it could, and should, take years to make the area inhabitable again. Some areas could be inhabitable sooner, but what is important, they say, is to make sure that every effected area is tested for contamination. "Based on Love Canal, it will take a minimum of 10 years to do the monitoring and cleanup," Kaufman said.

"There needs to be a well-coordinated, well-thought-out strategy as to how this is going to be tracked, assessed, evaluated and proper decisions made," Elder said.

With the tragedy of Katrina behind them, the most responsible thing to do for the people of the Gulf Coast is to ensure that the many potential health hazards are avoided. The city of New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast region, must demand a full-fledged clean up, stress Bullard and Dr. Wright.

"History has shown us that oftentimes if a community is poor and happens to be a community of color, it has to fight for things that most white people take for granted," said Bullard. "We're gonna have to make sure ... that we address environmental conditions within that particular community, and treat it as if the president of the United States lived next door."

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