Impact of Oil Spill Adds to Post-Katrina Woes

For at least 2,000 homes in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, the storm brought a double whammy: flooded homes and an oil refinery spill. Murphy Oil has settled with many of those affected, but some homeowners are worried it may be unsafe to rebuild.

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Few areas along the Gulf Coast saw more devastation from Hurricane Katrina than Saint Bernard Parish, on the edge of New Orleans. Along with the flooding caused by a twenty-foot storm surge, the Parish also had to cope with a massive oil spill from a nearby refinery. Lawsuits are pending on behalf of residents. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports the people of Saint Bernard Parish are less interested in blaming the refinery than in getting on with rebuilding.

GREG ALLEN: The Murphy Oil refinery sits right in the heart of the parish, wedged between the Mississippi River and residential neighborhoods. Nearly five months after the hurricane those neighborhoods are still mostly empty, save for an occasional trailer and a few people doing clean up.

MARY MEYER: I don't think ya'll want to really smell this stuff. You might not feel well afterwards.

ALLEN: Mary Meyer is using a shovel to clear some of the debris from outside of her one story brick home in Chaumet. With her husband Jude, Meyer lived across the street from the refinery, directly in the path of the oil spill. Murphy Oil says it's cleaned up more than three-quarters of the more than one million gallons of oil that was released that day. But even so, the signs are still everywhere. There's a smell of oil in the air. And here the floodwater rings marking the sides of the houses are black. Jude Meyer opens the front door of his house, inside oily debris is piled knee high.

JUDE MEYER: Gee, you see the line, all the line right there all the way on that wall? All oil, that's all oil.

ALLEN: Mary Meyer says she and her husband have heard about the lawsuits, but they aren't interested.

MEYER: I don't want to be involved in it. It's too long, it's too whatever. I just want to get my house back straight. If they're willing to help me clean up here and get me back in here then I'm willing to work with them too. So, I just want to get back in my house.

ALLEN: The Meyers are now talking to Murphy Oil about the clean up. The company will send crews to scrub the interior once the house has been cleared out. In a court filing this month Murphy Oil says it's spent $13 million so far cleaning up streets and other public areas. The company has also spent $50 million settling with residents of 1,800 homes. It says it hopes to reach settlement agreements with 1,200 more. One who's already settled is Saint Bernard Parish Councilman Joey DiFatta.

JOEY DIFATTA: They come in, they give you a percentage of the value of your property in cash, you sign a release giving them the opportunity to go ahead and clean your property, and after it's cleaned they retest it to be sure that there's no residue or anything hazardous on your land. So by doing that I think they're fulfilling all their obligations to make the property clean and whole and safe.

ALLEN: Some residents, though, say the oil spill would never have happened in the first place if Murphy Oil had taken the precaution of filling its tanks with water before the hurricane struck. A group of about 60 people have gone to court charging that the company's inaction directly led to the oil spill. Joe Bruno is one of their lawyers.

JOE BRUNO: God brought the hurricane, but large tanks of crude oil are not supposed to float during a flood. When the tank has got a low amount of oil in it you fill it full of water so that the tank won't float. I mean, the thing literally floated like a ship. And it moved some thirty feet off of its foundation.

ALLEN: Bruno and other lawyers representing residents are seeking class action status for a lawsuit that charges Murphy Oil with negligence. But he says he's not surprised that so many residents have already agreed to settlements.

BRUNO: People have accepted settlements not because the settlements are fair, they have accepted settlements because they're in desperate necessitous circumstances. And who can blame them when their house is gone, their personal articles are gone, their cars are gone, their boats are, everything's gone and they're fighting with their insurance companies or they didn't have enough insurance or whatever. How do you turn down, you know, 20, 25, $30,000?

ALLEN: Perhaps the biggest question returning residents have about the oil spill is what the long-term health effects will be. The Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring the clean up and conducting tests in the area. EPA officials are warning residents to protect themselves against exposure to oil residue and contaminated soil. But once the cleanup is complete the agency says residents can move back with no concern about long-term health effects. Not everyone is convinced. Environmental groups are doing their own testing and say the long term outlook is far from clear. But Councilman Joey DiFatta says for him, and for many people in Saint Bernard Parish, the primary issue is how to rebuild as quickly as possible.

DIFATTA: Yeah, the Murphy Oil is an inconvenience, but I don't think most folks will see it as the death of our community. People who live in that area are cleaning up. They're gutting their homes, they're moving forward with their rebuild. That's just Saint Bernard Parish.

ALLEN: DiFatta says Saint Bernard Parish is taking no position on whether residents should settle with Murphy Oil or not. But he notes that the refinery represents important jobs and a significant portion of the tax space. And right now, Saint Bernard Parish badly needs both. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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