Restoring the Gulf: An Ecological Agenda:
An Interview with Cynthia Sarthou

Cynthia Sarthou is executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, a network of environmental, social justice, and citizens' groups and individuals committed to restoring the Gulf of Mexico to an ecologically and biologically sustainable condition. Formed in 1994, the Network coordinates activities among members, supports grassroots organizing, and pursues campaigns on priority issues affecting the entire Gulf region, including water quality, wetlands, sustainable fisheries and biodiversity.

Multinational Monitor: Your organization is called the Gulf Restoration Network. Leaving aside issues related to the recent hurricanes, why does the Gulf need to be restored? From what does it need to be restored?

Cynthia Sarthou: It needs to be restored from years of abuse. For far too many years, development has proceeded in the Gulf with little attention to the effects on marine and estuarine ecosystems. By development, I mean industrial development, navigation and flood control, as well as housing development. There has been no real focus on how to develop while still sustaining the natural resources of the Gulf that form the basis of the region’s economy and culture.

MM: What have been the environmental impacts of maldevelopment?

Sarthou: Impairment of water quality is significant. There are significant numbers of water bodies in the Gulf of Mexico that have been listed as polluted.

Louisiana is losing and has been losing for several decades 25 miles of wetlands per year. This has placed natural resources and people at risk.

Overfishing has occurred without regard to long-term sustainability, so that many species are now overfished, and some are threatened or endangered.

MM: To what extent did this set of problems contribute to the damage that Katrina and Rita wreaked in the region?

Sarthou: Particularly in the state of Louisiana, the loss of wetlands is one of the reasons that we sustained so much damage. You’ll hear many of the old timers talk about Hurricanes Betsy and Camille and the ability of cities like New Orleans to weather those storms. However, when those hurricanes hit Louisiana, there were significant miles of wetlands that no longer exist that provided a buffer from storm surge. There has been such an erosion of wetlands that that protection is no longer provided.

In Louisiana, the development of navigation channels, and one in particular, actually provided a more rapid transportation route for storm surge. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet allowed the storm surge from Katrina to hit the levees in New Orleans at a much greater force than it otherwise would have. The navigation canals and levees have also stopped the natural flooding-rebuilding process needed to sustain coastal wetlands, and that has led to erosion of the wetland buffers that formerly provided protection to coastal communities.

Mississippi has had rapid development in recent years. There were no requirements that buildings be set back from the shore line, no rigorous building requirements for new shoreline development, and the casinos on docked barges essentially had no disaster plan. At one point, I had understood that the casinos were supposed to be moved before a hurricane hit, but most of them were built in such a way that they couldn’t be moved. As a result, not only were those casinos destroyed, but they contributed to the destruction of other properties along the coast of Mississippi when they were moved by the storm surge.

MM: Have the hurricanes exacerbated the environmental problems in the region?

Sarthou: Yes. We don’t know specifically the acres of wetlands loss in Louisiana related to Katrina or Rita, but we know it is hundreds to thousands of acres.

All the storm-related sewage and septic tank issues have exacerbated pollution in local water bodies. New Orleans is a major example, but there were many minor cases. Hundreds of publicly owned treatment works were damaged or destroyed, septic tanks were overflowed and/or flushed out.

Then there have been several oil spills. There are 9 million gallons worth of oil spills in the Gulf.

So there has just been this huge multiplier effect on the pollution that we had. The question that remains is what the long-term effect of that pollution will be.

MM: What is the Gulf Restoration Network proposing to deal with the problems you’ve been facing?

Sarthou: One proposal is for comprehensive wetlands restoration in Louisiana. There has been an effort, but with very little buy-in by the political forces that be in the administration or in Congress, for comprehensive restoration efforts. This is an economic and community protection issue, not just an environmental issue.

We’re asking for what we call comprehensive Category Five protection. That doesn’t just mean structural protections, like levees — the reliance on levees alone for protection is misplaced. There needs to be a more comprehensive focus on combining structural and nonstructural flood control. Wetland buffers combined with levees, more stringent building codes and set-back requirements. Much of the destruction of homes — which now have to be burned or bulldozed and dumped — could have been avoided if elevation requirements had been imposed for FEMA insurance or by local land use planners.

We’re also requesting comprehensive monitoring of water quality and air quality for a significant period of time — a year or more, to ensure that there are no long-term impacts from the pumping of flood waters from city of New Orleans into Lake Pontchartrain.

We’re urging the same thing over in Mississippi — trying to get state and local officials to use this as an opportunity to do comprehensive storm water management and green planning, including set-backs and buffer zones. We also see the potential to do things more energy efficiently, to build in public transportation, for example, which might actually help with the evacuation as well as with the environmental issues. What we want them to do is build sustainably, build smarter, build stronger.

MM: How responsive have the state governments been to your proposals?

Sarthou: In Mississippi, it’s yet to be seen, but the governor did put together a series of charettes [public meetings to discuss land-use planning] that the environmental community was quite impressed with.

Those charettes were designed to take a comprehensive look at how New Urbanism can be incorporated into the rebuilding process, which would include green space and set-back requirements.

The response in Louisiana has been much slower. The response by the Louisiana congressional delegation was a fiasco. The delegation was asking for a huge array of projects, including accelerated construction of navigation canals, that have nothing to do with rebuilding. The political leadership in the state just does not appear to have any real comprehensive vision of what actually needs to be done to rebuild. As a result, too many interests are trying to use the disaster as an opportunity to get a lot of pet projects funded.

This contrasts strongly with the Mississippi approach, where the State appears to be trying to look more comprehensively at how to build stronger and better.

MM: What has been the reaction at the federal level?

Sarthou: At the federal level, I don’t see a lot is happening. There is this turf war in Congress, and there is a fear of how Gulf reconstruction money is going to affect the budget and so Congress has not been moving forward.

Instead, there has been an attempt to waive environmental laws. Projects and proposals that would never have been acceptable before are being floated in the name of Katrina recovery, and those proposals are not supportive of rebuilding. What people need in the affected areas is an assurance that environmental laws are going to by applied to ensure their health and safety. Congress is not making any real comprehensive assessment of what needs to be done or how they really could support rebuilding efforts.

MM: How does the Army Corps of Engineers fit into this whole story?

Sarthou: The Corps’ role in the disaster, both good and bad, is probably not going to be known for a long time.

The Corps was responsible for constructing and maintaining navigation channels, at the behest of Congress, of course. They were responsible for the levees-only policy regarding protection of communities against hurricanes, which has been questioned for many, many years. Now it appears that the Corps’ levee construction decisions were carried out without sufficient scientific oversight and a clear understanding of what the failure of that policy might be, namely the destruction of much of New Orleans.

It looks like there were failures in Corps oversight and/or construction. For example, in the case of the Industrial Canal, it may be that they actually had contractors doing construction that weakened that levee.

And yet they’re being placed largely in charge of the reconstruction, without any proposals for oversight by independent science to guide their work. Given their role in the past — of constructing, or permitting much of the unsustainable development, and involvement in construction of the failed levees and seawall without real oversight or accountability — their role in rebuilding is making a lot of people very nervous.

MM: Is there an alternative to the Corps?

Sarthou: I think the alternative would be a multi-agency approach with independent scientific oversight of rebuilding decisions and activities. Also, the Corps’ projects need to be prioritized on the basis of community need and safety and less on the political whim of Congress.

MM: Does what appears to be a long-term upsurge in hurricanes mean that the oil industry needs to be operating differently?

Sarthou: I think they are going to have to operate differently. They are going to have to look much more carefully at their approach to construction and operation of rigs and pipelines. In Louisiana, the industry’s infrastructure was built with the understanding that it would be buffered by wetlands. But a good deal of those wetlands are now open water, so it is really not surprising that oil and gas infrastructure is not withstanding intense storms.

I’ve heard that some of of the equipment associated with the pipelines and/or platforms did not work properly, even though oil companies had given the public assurances that those systems would protect against spills. And apparently the type of rigs that had been constructed in the Gulf are not withstanding intense hurricane force winds and storm surges.

I think they need to totally rethink how safe and secure all of their facilities are, with an eye to the fact that Katrina and Rita are not unique. These are predicted happenings in the next 10 years. We’re going to see more and more of these storms, and things need to be constructed to withstand that level of storm.

MM: What are the plans of the Gulf Restoration Network for building a citizen movement to advance your agenda?

Sarthou: We’re working with the environmental community in both Louisiana and Mississippi to try to come up with a list of issues that are priorities.

We will continue monitoring and advocating to ensure that the priorities of our members are included in rebuilding plans.

We also plan to build coalitions with other people who share similar interests, such as low-income groups — we all have a similar interest in trying to build more sustainable, secure communities.

A lot of our work will involve monitoring agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, to push for better infrastructure (i.e. sewage treatment plants) that improves the environment, public health and people’s lives. And working with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, we will press for a comprehensive and effective restoration plan and funding for that plan.

MM: Are you finding that the hurricanes are galvanizing people to join your network and gravitate to the issues you have been working on?

Sarthou: I don’t know that it has galvanized them to join. It has galvanized our existing members to participate more actively. But it has also caused a crisis among some of our members who are badly affected. Last week, for example, we got a cry for help from Mississippi activists who live on the coast and are beleaguered and overwhelmed. They are faced with numerous meetings on rebuilding that are the only opportunity they will have to affect the rebuilding of their communities, but they are dealing with their own personal crises.

We’re seeing a lot more interest in our issues. People do understand that with this disaster comes an opportunity to change what otherwise was unchangeable, and may bring money to rebuild infrastructure that would not have been available otherwise. Louisiana and Mississippi do not have a lot of money, so we have to take advantage of this opportunity.

MM: What are the interests opposing the kind of agenda that you’re putting forward?

Sarthou: There are some industry representatives and land developers that are opposed to our agenda. Our proposals mean giving up land that could otherwise be developed to create buffers. In Mississippi, there are those who want to go back to building high-rise condos all over the place. Their agenda is build, build, build and cheaply, cheaply, cheaply.

In the city of New Orleans, there has been an element that sees this as the opportunity to remove the poor from New Orleans and change the demographics.

They are talking about dispossessing very honest, hard-working people who owned their property, and go back generations in the city. Those people need to be able to rebuild and they need to be able to restore their communities in a way that is safe.

But some developers see this as a land grab, an opportunity to build high-priced homes, instead.

However, I don’t mean to give the impression that the entire business community is opposed. There are a lot of people in the business community who see this an opportunity to do things better. They are not all opponents. There are a lot of people who are interested in doing this right, and building sustainably. I mean, a lot of business people on the coast are from the coast. These people really care about the coast.

But, there is that element that simply sees rebuilding as an opportunity to make a buck.

© Multinational Monitor September/October 2005