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Agent Orange in the City of New Orleans

The War at Home

by Jane Crown

In 1929 the stock market crash was on the lips of people in many cities. New Orleans was no different. There would have been people living in the B. W. Cooper housing project then, mostly of Italian descent; one of my aunts (by marriage) lived in one of them until the latter part of the 1930s.

Nobody seemed to notice when Thompson Hayward Co. moved in near the housing project on an acre plot in 1941. Times were still tough; manned industry, progress and business in general must have been seen as prosperous and worthy of a flailing city. Families needed work—some sense of hope that things were growing and changing.

Things were indeed changing in the city in a major way. Thompson Hayward Co. was cooking chemicals indoors. Inside large kettles, a dry production not unlike the spice companies in some ways—a cayenne of some considerable potency—was being manufactured. Like the goods flowing into the new decade, a new product was emerging.

By 1949 production of chemicals was changing. Folks in this era, twenty years after the Great Crash of 1929, Black Thursday to Black Tuesday, were not looking for any more bad signs. There were now large cooking vats outdoors—the largest gumbo pots you can imagine. The rue was now leaning towards a wet product, and residents were starting to get a hint of what was happening at the plant. The neighbors of Gert Town were complaining of dust in the air and “overflowing outdoor vats.”1

What was overflowing from those pots was an herbicide known as 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). The inherent issue with this toxic defoliant is that once it reaches a peak temperature of 160 degrees Celsius, portions of it can transform into a byproduct called dioxin. Dioxin is the most dangerous human carcinogen known.

Life crawled on until World War II. People must have been too busy to be concerned about what was going on at 7700 Earhart Blvd. Many fathers, sons and brothers were drafted halfway across the world, and those who remained were doing their civic duty, supporting the war effort like any patriotic American would do. A vicious German enemy with a queer little mustache was threatening to rule the world with fascist ideology.

If anybody was thinking about what that secretive little acre held—where cousin Rene or Uncle Salvador may have worked before going off to war—there was little mention of it. They were too busy looking forward. Agent Orange was not used during World War II. “In the early years of World War II, a grant was provided by the National Research Council to develop a chemical to destroy rice crops in Japan (the major food source of the Japanese). 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T (Agent Orange) was the result. A discussion between President Roosevelt and White House Chief of Staff, Admiral William D. Leahy determined that this heinous chemical should not be used.” 2

The nuclear age brought with it a fear of bombs and Castro. Kennedy stood down the Cuban Missile Crisis. Again we feared something worlds away which could directly impact us. The year 1961 saw the sale of Thompson Hayward Company and its moniker to T.H. Agriculture (THAN). Although it changed hands, the company still possessed an itching need to destroy our enemies. Deadly toxins were starting to consume the workers behind the large steel doors of Earhart’s sole acre.

One can imagine that many of the men who had returned from World War II were trying to return to some sort of normalcy—going to work for THAN and perhaps inviting their cousins and friends. Jobs had never been an easy thing to come by in New Orleans, in a widespread service industry and a floundering French Quarter that people were calling skid row by the early 1960s. If you were a Gert Town resident, you could very well have been making the chemical dinner inside those gates, and bringing home the proverbial bacon at better wages than most.

By the 1960s the company had been open for business twenty years. Production of herbicides was still actively pursued by THAN. Hippies were out smoking grass and enjoying their own chemical high, preaching free love and peace for mankind. The hard working individuals who were less dreamy lived and conducted daily business in Gert Town, still mostly unaware of the toxins. It was the counterculture revolution and people were more concerned with getting their children into college, and away from the escalating war talk.

Vietnam was on the verge of spilling into something catastrophic, and the company was setting an unparalleled pace to reach its goals in production. Thousands of men were dripping into the jungles of North Vietnam, but they did not go without chemical armor. Their brothers in Gert Town had provided them with a most effective herbicide. Known for the orange stripe on the side of its barrels, some 18 million tons of Agent Orange was used in the era of ‘Nam.

Nobody seemed to be looking into the yards to see if there was any change. Nobody was really home, once again, to complain of anything foul reeking in the air. The old clay pipes of New Orleans were just a fact of life. Water is not supposed to have a taste, but New Orleans water has always been a bit grainy and salty. People were simply doing the sign of the cross, shuffling in and out of the Catholic churches and Baptist too, praying for an end to the conflict. The conflict raged on at home and across leagues of a foreign sea.

The year 1971 ushered in many other new bad boys on the block: Diedrin, Aldrin, Chlordane and dry cleaning agents were contained in the old factory. Newer fluids and progressive chemicals suited the community needs. Herbicides were still in fashion for farmer and city dweller alike. The crisis in Vietnam had ended and Agent Orange was now an internationally banned agent, having been used from 1961-1971.

Now here in our story things start to slow a pace. Like the horse and buggy by the curb waiting for an easy fare and jaunt through the Garden District or Quarter, things were sort of limping along. There was no more wet production inside or outside of 7700 Earhart. At the height of disco in 1976, the owners of the company decided to use the building solely for storage purposes.

While you were listening to Credence Clearwater Revival or ABBA, the doors of the company were rusting from the toxic chemicals being contained inside. Nobody was asking questions. The company quietly turned over its ownership in 1981 to Harcros Chemicals, Inc., and again the THAN moniker was sustained. Bell bottoms, Cadillacs and spectators were creeping out of style, but big business and the fast life were enjoying a new rebirth in industrial greed.

By the time tab collars and high-heeled shoes for men changed again, things were morphing inside the doors of Harcros Chemicals. The company finally closed its chemical gates for production in 1986. Harcros still owned the building and the contents were left to be stored. In 1987, the wrists of Harcros and THAN were slapped for dumping something curious into the New Orleans drains, the identity of which was never disclosed. The cost for Harcros/THAN was around 4 million dollars to remediate the dumping, and they were forced to remove thousands of gallons of liquid toxins along with tons of foul soil.

The EPA, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture told Harcros/THAN not to do it again, and they promised, perhaps learning a mighty lesson along with the amount it cost them to do as little as they did. There in Gert Town was probably the EPA’s first encounter with what was really happening at the plant. Wasn’t it only for dry storage? How does one dump dry goods into a city drain?

The answer had not been obvious when the backs of neighbors were turned and the company was no longer stewing anything that could be seen as dangerous. Now these surplus chemicals gave away the secret. Gert Town residents began to speak of a very long list of maladies caused by Agent Orange, from lung cancer, to liver cancer, to pancreatic cancer. The scourge of this unfriendly neighbor left plentiful lasting side effects. Agent Orange was not only the name of the stripe on the barrel, but was now commonly known to be the agent applying its direct effects.

Superfund sites were not far from our addled minds in the 1980s. Accidental spills were occurring around the country at that time. We had Love Canal, Chernobyl, and many other places on which to base our fears. Our world was decaying right before our eyes. It had been for years, but we were too busy living our lives and making due.

A class action suit that had been pending for nearly ten years finally won its case in 1996 against Harcros and THAN and its management for toxic abuse of the neighborhood and reckless endangerment of lives. Some 180 million dollars was awarded to the residents of Gert Town, to be divvied up in concentric rings moving outward from the source. Those less affected by this miasma got a smaller piece of the prize, and those closest to the center of the chemical plant got a bit more, but none of the awards were met with great satisfaction.

The average family, who had likely lost a grandfather in World War II, a brother in Vietnam, and an uncle to the brew of Agent Orange, got less than a few thousand dollars in compensation. Lawyers got the largest parcel of the settlement, reached out of court only days before it was set to go to trial. The rest was left in a small fund for the cleanup of what was now deemed a Brownfield Site. Agent Orange had been studied, you see, on cattle and vegetation before the Vietnam crisis was in full throttle, killing everything it touched.

The odors may have been long gone but the enemy had migrated from Vietnamese soil to our own. Although Agent Orange was born and bred in our backyard to tame the thicket of forest and ‘savage’ people that dwelled in another country, it is still lounging about the water tables and the particulate matter in New Orleans, still flowing into the air as an open invite to attach to any organic matter.

Now, something finally had to be done; progress was at a complete halt. The city wished to build an expressway over the ghost town that Gert Town had become, but who would build it? Earhart Expressway, the symbol of modernity, abruptly ends several blocks before Gert Town and does not go through to the downtown area. There was talk of a solution within LDEQ, something in my opinion to be lax remediation: they would asphalt over those toxins, simple and cheap. The board itself is composed of several important men within the chemical industry; apparently, in their minds Gert Town and its terrible filthy aftermath were “not that dirty.”

Now, in the year 2006, the Earhart Expressway has suddenly gotten a new go-ahead. Earlier, nobody but nobody had wanted to continue the building of the Expressway, only to have to deal with digging up and paying greatly for removing the contaminated area at 7700 Earhart. It stood there, a monument of ineffective clean up.

On October 2, 2006, two permits were issued for 7700 Earhart Blvd, which is owned by Harcros Chemical Inc. The first was a permit to demolish the current existing structure to grade, excavate and backfill property, and relocate the fence. When the city bureaucrat issuing these permits spoke to the contractor, he was told some of the processes to be used, which included wetting the building while dismantling to prevent dust from escaping into the neighborhood.

The second permit authorized the clean-up and equipment associated with clean-up. The description of work reads “Remediation project: install two office trailers, one remediation tent, one guard shack, one personnel decontamination trailer. The tent will move around various areas of the site to protect different remediation locales. The company who will be excavating the acreage is Southern Environmental Management Specialties.”

Is it coincidental that after hurricane Katrina construction finally begins on this foul area? The work is going to progress as though nothing had happened. It makes one wonder for what purpose this work is suddenly being planned. Does the state have some investment in moving the property lines, some rotten scheme behind their making space for the continuance of Earhart Expressway? The EPA sure seems might friendly down in Louisiana, in my humble southern ignorance.

Is this a final solution to cleaning the site? Whether the licenses will have to be renewed in a year’s time, and whether progress will go quickly after that asphalt is removed, nobody knows its ultimate fate. There is hardly a mention. Like the gaps of time when men were at war and the country was in economic crisis, much as it is now, another of those glorious opportunities arises. Not too many people are home; Katrina made sure of that—doing her part on the rebuilding of a better Gert Town and that great American freedom called an Expressway.

Soon you’ll be able to drive right into that toxic pollution, exiting into a brave new city! But where are the monies set aside for clean-up of Agent Orange? Do we know if the fund is being used? No official is asking and no one is telling. Will the fund go the way of many sleeping dollars in the city of New Orleans, disappearing into fat pockets of officious looking men and women who passed up the Gert Town neighborhood years ago?

The city has waited twenty plus years for this sort of progress, and in a post-Katrina world a new expressway going through to the other side of the city seems welcome. But where are the studies being done on Agent Orange levels, those wicked dioxins still sitting quietly in the ground like polite little southern children?

Studies done in Bien Hoa in 1999 found elevated toxins related to Agent Orange in the veins of the Vietnamese; and 6,250 square miles of South Vietnam cannot be farmed.4 Pollution testing panels removed from the mud in New Orleans after Katrina showed high levels of arsenic, benzene and other deadly toxins. Analysis of soil and air quality after Hurricane Katrina reveal dangerously high levels of contaminants. 3

Nobody had ever wanted to touch Gert Town, but now that scare seems to have been washed away with the flood. Though there is progress afoot, I wonder where will the removed soil go? And why have there been no tests reported for dioxins related to Agent Orange? Perhaps it’s just not for me to divine. The great political saints of Louisiana have been making those decisions for us for so long, I don’t see why that secret tradition should stop now.

Jane Crown was born in Akron, Ohio on January 02, 1969. A freelance writer and poet living in San Antonio, Texas Jane spent ten years in the city of New Orleans in which Katrina evicted her. She has known great loss due to this catastrophic life-altering event. Her work is focused on the path of finding true self, the ideals of love and it’s mysteries, and the paranoia of aging. She writes of being in an ordinary life propelled by the extenuating circumstances that  make it extraordinary. She also has a ten year manuscript in the making entitled “The Paper Fruit”. Jane hosts a blog talk radio show that features published authors in the poetry genre to magazine editors and book publishers, her radio site is: www.blogtalkradio.com/The-Jane-Crown-Show

References

1. “Toxic Chemical Factory Litigation: Atkins v. Harcros” (http://rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR969/MR969.ch12.pdf)

2. Arnold Schecter, et. al., “Recent Dioxin Contamination From Agent Orange in Residents of a Southern Vietnam City,” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine v.43, n.5, May01

3. “Natural Resources Development Center,” http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/katrinadata/contents.asp

4. Gary D. Moore, “Agent Orange Talking Paper #1,” http://www.gmasw.com/aotalk1.htm

Harcros Chemicals, Inc. can be reached at PO Box 700, 329 Wykotts Mill Rd, Hightstown NJ 08520.

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