Chalmette resident standing by his new house. (Photo: Jeff Young)
Oil spills are nothing new for the working class town of Chalmette, Louisiana. Hurricane Katrina let loose a million gallons of oil in a residential neighborhood there. Host Jeff Young revisits the people of Chalmette five years later to see how they’re coping.
YOUNG: Well, federal and state officials are still trying to assess the damages from some oil that hit Louisiana’s coast—no, we’re not talking about BP’s oil. We’re talking about the hundreds of spills that let loose some 11 million gallons during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita five years ago.
One spill hit Chalmette, a blue-collar community in Louisiana’s St Bernard Parish. The week after Hurricane Rita in September, 2005, I visited with some residents picking through their oily, watery homes.
LICCIARDI: And it's not looking too good at all. I see a lot of oil all over everything. I really don't even want to go in. (Sighs)
YOUNG: Charles Licciardi’s house sat along the fence line of a refinery owned by the Murphy Oil Company. A 250,000-barrel storage tank had not been properly secured before the storm. Hurricane Katrina’s surge caused the tank to float and then burst, topping the receding floodwater with over a million gallons of oil.
LICCIARDI: If we just had the water we could probably rebuild, but with the oil I think that's gonna eliminate that possibility – which I lived here my whole life, so I need another home. Huh!
YOUNG: The oil hit about 1,700 homes over a square mile. Murphy Oil quickly cleaned up the streets and nearby canals, but cleaning residential properties was a problem. Murphy Oil construction manager Kevin Roussell promised his company would be a responsible neighbor.
ROUSSELL: Murphy will do the right thing by these people. It's our community. You know, all of our people live here just like they do. We've been here 50 years and we gonna be here 50 more.
YOUNG: That was five years ago. This summer, I went back to see how the people I’d met in Chalmette were doing.
[LICCIARDI GREETING JEFF …“Hi, how you doin’ Jeff? Mr. Licciardi, how are you? Good to see you. Call me Charlie.”]
YOUNG: Charles Licciardi, who’s now 58, lost his teaching job because most Parish schools were not rebuilt after Katrina. He’s getting by as a Justice of the Peace, officiating at weddings. Like a lot of his neighbors, Mr. Licciardi faced a tough decision about whether to rebuild after the oily flood. Traces of contamination in soil samples left him with too much uncertainty.
LICCIARDI : We wouldn’t know deep into the soil what’s in there. I mean, if you have your children, grandchildren, or yourself outside barbecuing, you know, what are you walking on?…And things like that. I felt that it was in everybody’s best interest to not rebuild there not knowing what contamination would actually be in years to come.
[TRUCK DOOR CLOSES]
YOUNG: We climb into his pickup truck for a tour of the old neighborhood. There’s not much left to see.
LICCIADI: All this now is owned by Murphy Oil refinery and these were all our families and friends that used to be here. I don’t even know if I can pick out my lot anymore. When we get there we’ll have to see.
[CAR INTERIOR SOUND]
YOUNG: The tidy, single-story brick houses are mostly gone, replaced by grassy lots and the occasional concrete slab. Mr. Licciardi spots a tree on the plot that was once his home.
LICCIARDI: yeah, see that cedar tree there, I planted that tree. It was actually a twig, it was about, maybe two feet high when I planted it. And those things grow pretty good, you can see how thick and full it is. Of course, it don’t belong to me anymore.
YOUNG : You could say Charles Licciardi and Murphy Oil grew up together here in Chalmette. Fifty years ago, the refinery was about the size of an average gas station. Now, it’s a sprawling complex of tanks and smokestacks. Mr. Licciardi lived 30 years on this street, facing the west fence of the Murphy refinery. Before that he worked the family farm on the east side of the refinery, on land his grandfather bought when he came to the U.S. from Italy.
LICCIARDI: He just happened to get the ones on each side of Murphy. We farmed it. When I was a small child, I remember picking tomatoes and corn, and driving mules and what not. All of this was real fertile, fertile land and we grew a lot of vegetables here, sold them at the French market.
YOUNG: The farm is long gone. Murphy oil continues to grow with land acquired in a class action settlement with residents after the spill. The refinery’s building a new lab facility on the plot where Mr. Licciardi’s mother and sister once lived. Mr. Licciardi’s not happy with the settlement. He thinks he got only about 40 cents on the dollar for his property. Murphy Oil declined to comment.
[TRAIN HORN BLOWS, THEN PASSES]
YOUNG: Mr. Licciardi and his wife now live in a small white trailer near the railroad tracks a little more than a mile from where his old house stood, on a short gravel road called Licciardi Drive. Murphy Oil is still their neighbor. The trailer’s so close to the refinery they can feel the heat from the flares that burn impurities from the oil.
Now the BP oil crisis brings on a strange sense of déjà vu. Mr. Licciardi’s entire state faces the same lingering uncertainties about oil contamination that his community lived through. And the omnipresent ads from BP, promising to make things right, also seem eerily familiar.
[BP AD: “BP IS GONNA BE HERE UNTIL THE OIL IS GONE, AND THE PEOPLE AND BUISNESSES ARE BACK TO NORMAL. UNTILWE MAKE THIS RIGHT.”]
LICCIARDI : They’ll make it right? (laughs) I’m not laughing because it’s funny, but I’m laughing because it’s just outrageous. They can’t make it right, they’re not going to make it right. They’ll make it right for them! But for the people… I doubt it very seriously. I lived through it and it hasn’t been made right for us and I don’t see them making it right for anybody else, other than themselves.
YOUNG: You can see pictures of Chalmette, then and now, at our website loe.org.
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