When Hurricane Katrina hit, the levees failed in the Lower Ninth Ward, flooding thousands. Residents blamed the Army Corps of Engineers. Now, the Corps is working to expand the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal, a project that has been in the works for years, and many residents are opposed to it.
Happy Johnson, Chief Resilience Officer for the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED,) lives in the Lower Ninth Ward and says it’s his duty to advocate for his neighbors, “I think about...the rich culture and history and everything that this neighborhood represents and how to preserve it for the people that will come after me.”
CSED has partnered with Dillard University biology professor, Bernard Singleton, to help start a citizen science project measuring air quality in the area.
In December, the CSED held a community environmental science summit at the Sanchez Center, where they heard from a lot of concerned citizens about the canal expansion. The Corps is expanding the canal in order to let more boats through. The expansion would require a lot of construction and even the relocation of a few houses. It was proposed over 60 years ago.
Bill Waiters and his wife have lived in the Lower Ninth for about as many years. They worry the project will ruin the neighborhood. Waiters says, “Once you start dredging that water and digging it up you have no idea what's coming up - and once it's airborne how are you going to control it? You can't control it.”
He has been fighting the expansion for over a decade. He says that protesting this project has caused him mental anguish. “When they first proposed to widen the canal - one of the landing abutments would have been in my front yard,” he says.
This project has been in the works for years but the Corps does not have funding for the project yet. In order to get the money, they have to finish a three-year study, which wraps up in December, and then ask Congress for the funding.
Dr. Singleton thought the controversy over the expansion was an interesting problem. He thinks it is possible the project could cause air pollution. He says, “We anticipate some real problems with the change in air quality and the overall lifestyle of individuals who live in the Lower Ninth Ward.”
So he and his students decided to help Happy Johnson and the residents of the Ninth Ward measure the air quality themselves. They got a grant for a few handheld air monitors and are training residents like Waiters on how to use them.
On a sunny day, Singleton and two of his students hike up to the top of the levee that rises above the Lower Ninth. The canal is to the right and the Mississippi River, which rises high on the banks.
At the top of the levee Mikanna Adkins, a Dillard student, holds up a small, triangular white plastic container in front of her chest for a few minutes. She explains how to use the AirBeam2, a device that measures air quality, “When the letter on the indicator turns this clearish blueish color that means it’s recording - so now I just have to wait until the light turns off and then the plots of the graph will come up.”
They’re looking for particulate matter in the air - tiny particles of dust and smog that can get in people’s lungs. They have only been out to collect data a few times. One reading had high levels of dangerous matter. Today the result is “moderate,” there’s not much pollution in the air.
Singleton plans to take measurements for about a year. Then, he plans to present their findings at a community meeting. They also want to do a health survey of the community, and see if they find any correlations, like high rates of asthma or lung cancer.
Waiters hopes the study sheds light on how bad expanding the canal would be for the community. He says,
The Army Corps has done its own air quality analysis. They acknowledge that there will be more emissions and dust from construction once the project starts, but say it will be negligible.
However, that does not matter to Waiters because he does not trust the Corps. He has fought this project for over a decade. He has filed lawsuits, attended public meetings, and filed complaints. To him, using this citizen science is just one more way to fight the project.
Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Foundation for Louisiana.
This piece was edited and produced by Tegan Wendland.