New Orleans would not be the same, and many black families would not be safely back at their homes, if not for the efforts of Dr. Beverly Wright.
Hurricane Katrina was one of the United States’ worst natural disasters and, more important, among the worst federal blunders in terms of emergency protection and response. One of the foulest examples of that came in the EPA’s determination that they were not responsible for cleaning up the toxic lead, arsenic and PCB contamination in the soil and water found after Katrina (though the EPA claims that Katrina did not cause any substantial contamination that was not already there).
Wright, an environmental scholar and founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University, continues to fight to make sure that the federal government recognizes that the post-storm toxic contamination – vestiges of which can still be felt today – continue to threaten the lives of many families in New Orleans.
While lead saturation in New Orleans’ soil was a problem before Katrina, the floods exacerbated the problem even more. Wright has worked alongside top lead experts in creating groundbreaking studies on the effects of lead exposure, particularly in areas where huge numbers of poor, black families live.
In the post-Katrina recovery, she developed a program called A Safe Way Back Home in collaboration with U.S. Steelworkers to cleanse neighborhoods and abandoned homes that reeked of mold and untold volumes of noxious air pollutants.
Last year, Wright received the prestigious National Heinz Award for her work in environmental justice and trainings in hazardous remediation work. If the soil remediation pilot programs of Wright and her colleagues prove successful in cleaning up the New Orleans environment, it will serve as a model for cities around the country, many of which suffer from toxic metal contamination from decades of urban industrialization.
Nationally, the green jobs movement owes much credit to Wright, who helped craft and steer the first government programs to create environmental clean-up jobs for communities suffering from vast under and unemployment.
Her Minority Worker Training and Brownfields Minority Training Program, forged in collaboration with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences nearly 15 years ago, served as an early blueprint for how to produce green job training. Wright designed programs that taught science and engineering skills to high school grads and dropouts, and included an emphasis on life skills training.
Wright co-chairs the National Black Environmental Justice Network and the Environmental Justice Climate Change Initiative. She also co-authored the 2007 Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report, along with Dr. Robert Bullard, that documented how people of color were more likely to live next to hazardous waste sites than white Americans.
She currently is embroiled in a struggle against the New Orleans and Louisiana governments that have yet to release millions of dollars in “soil assessment, remediation and hazard reduction” grants that were approved as part of the city’s official recovery plan.
Children’s lives are on the line as thousands of them eat, play and walk through contaminated soil. As per history, all that stands between Wright and those environmental improvements is government bureaucracy. New Orleans families await that history to be changed.
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