Oil Spill Still Troubles New Orleans Neighborhood

The Murphy Oil Company was once embraced by the Chalmette neighborhood of New Orleans, where residents coexisted with a refinery. Then the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina sparked a million-gallon oil spill. The company has paid settlement money to many residents, but some Chalmette homeowners say the oil company's efforts are not enough.

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, water and oil in New Orleans' St. Bernard Parish. More than one million gallons of oil spilled from the nearby Murphy Oil refinery. Right away the company offered cash settlements to many area residents. A year later, lots of homeowners say they settled too fast.

NPR's Molly Peterson reports.

MOLLY PETERSON reporting:

Swapping stories about seeing home for the first time after Katrina is still a common pastime on the Gulf Coast.

Unidentified Woman #1: We had footprints all up and down my driveway.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah, we had those too. I had those...

PETERSON: Eileen Schwartz(ph) and her family live on Marietta Street in the suburb of Chalmette. When she saw her house on the news surrounded by something darker than water, she says all she felt was numb.

MS. EILEEN SCHWARTZ (Resident, New Orleans): Then when you hear about the oil, it's like now we're in the hands of Murphy. What do we do?

PETERSON: Schwartz and her family know Murphy Oil as a neighborhood business. After the spill, the company quickly hired a clean-up crew. Murphy gave $5 million dollars to the local parish, United Way and local schools. And even before St. Bernard residents were first allowed back, Murphy started paying out cash settlements to property owners, in exchange for a release from liability.

On Marietta Street, many residents got $25-30,000, including Eileen Schwartz, who didn't think twice about signing.

Ms. SCHWARTZ: I had the minimum of insurance. I still owe on my house. I couldn't afford to go get another house note and pay 900 for a house that I can live in where I know the environment's safe and still pay on this one. There was no way.

PETERSON: Schwartz says her house is clean now, except for some stubborn oil stains on her driveway. But some Marietta Street residents have grown uneasy as word of mouth spread about the variance in the depth of property clean-up and in settlement offers, some much larger than others.

Lee Zerner(ph) says she signed onto a settlement because she's too old to fight. She's nearly 80 years old. But after talking to other neighbors she doesn't trust Murphy's assessment that her property is clean.

Ms. LEE ZERNER (Resident, New Orleans): If my neighbors on the right and left and in the back and over on the other side all had oil in it, how come my house didn't have any? That's bologna. I'd like to have the truth. And I don't think they're telling us the truth.

PETERSON: Murphy's not saying much of anything these days. A Murphy spokeswoman contacted in Arkansas said a gag order in a class action law suit about the spill prevented comment for this story, but did say that the company has paid $50-100 million in settlements to around 2,700 property owners.

The Environmental Protection Agency with state and local agencies is overseeing clean up efforts in St. Bernard Parish. Sam Coleman, a senior EPA official in Dallas, says the quality of clean-up has been acceptable, but he can't say when it will be done.

Mr. SAM COLEMAN (Environmental Protection Agency): At this point the partnership is working. And while I may have some concerns about the speed in which the work is proceeding, I would not say that there are a lot of things that can be done to make it go any faster.

Mr. JOEY MUSCARELLA(ph) (Resident, New Orleans): It's still got oil on it.

Ms. REBECCA MUSCARELLA (Resident, New Orleans): The fence still has oil on it. You can rub your hands...

Mr. MUSCARELLA: See the black line.

Ms. MUSCARELLA: ...and you get crude oil on your hands from it.

PETERSON: Just behind Marietta Street, Rebecca Muscarella and her husband settled with Murphy for about $40,000. After a remediation crew came and went ,she can still point out residue from the spill and says there's new damage from the clean up itself. Her husband Joey hikes up his jean shorts to show off rashes and boils on his leg he believes came from oil exposure.

Mr. MUSCARELLA: When and my wife clean up inside the house...

Ms. MUSCARELLA: You can only take it so much.

Mr. MUSCARELLA: Yeah. I had burning throat and I was having them - the staph infection and lightheadedness and all kinds of stuff. I wasn't feeling good.

PETERSON: Murphy says the Muscarella property is no longer contaminated, but Rebecca hasn't seen any test results. And she says oil is still bubbling up to the surface of her yard. As she talks, she grabs a shovel and heads over to her newly planted lawn, her two-year-old daughter not far behind.

Ms. MUSCARELLA: I don't have crude oil on my property. I'm not contaminated. I'm sorry, what do you call that?

PETERSON: She points to dark patches running through much paler soil.

Ms. MUSCARELLA: My gosh. What do I see? More crude oil. Would you like another one? One more sample? One more sample. Where, baby?

Mr. MUSCARELLA: Right in front of the...

Ms. MUSCARELLA: No, right over here, because I can see the crude oil right on top. I don't even have to dig. Hello. Mr. Crude Oil, you're back.

PETERSON: The EPA's Sam Coleman says he's heard stories like this and adds that community involvement coordinators will soon start investigating resident's claims. But Coleman says it's up to local officials to decide whether the area is safe.

Mr. COLEMAN: We're trying to support the parish. The parish is looking for as many residents as possible to return, and we're supporting that goal.

PETERSON: Rebecca Muscarella has lived in Chalmette next to Murphy all her life. But now she says she can't trust the company or the EPA or the parish officials. She says now she only has faith in God.

Ms. MUSCARELLA: We have to have something to believe in, and that is what we stand on today, is Jesus, is what's going to protect us from the pestilence and the dangers and the things that are here, and that's all we have.

PETERSON: Molly Peterson, NPR News. New Orleans.

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