New Orleans, Louisiana: The Lower 9th Ward

A Personal Account:

In the winter of 2009 I took off for New Orleans to do relief work for three months. While I had never seen this city pre-Katrina, it was immediately obvious that some communities were struggling with great difficulty to rebuild. Three and a half years after one of the worst disasters the United States had ever seen, great numbers of buildings throughout New Orleans remained abandoned. The neighborhood I stayed in, the Lower 9th Ward, was greatly devoid of people having only one operating school and minimal amenities. My block consisted of only 2 rebuilt homes (appart from my own), probably 15 abandoned homes but mostly overgrown lots where houses had been demolished.  Prior to Hurricane Katrina 15,000 people made the Lower 9th their home. Today 5,500 live there. Hundreds lost their lives and many families choose not yet to return to this scared neighborhood. As I walked through crumbling streets I was hit was a deep sense of apprehension, seeing the remnants of a once vibrant community now in ruins. As I began my exploration of this still hurting city, this feeling would only grow revealing to me the depth and complexity of issues in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The Human Impact:

The obvious impact of a disaster such as hurricane Katrina was the destruction of entire communities and livelihoods. A major question today is why families are choosing not to come back and rebuild. The Lower 9th, a neighborhood below sealevel, was hard hit when the levee broke along the industrial canal. Many families were forced to hide in attics during the storm and then wait on their rooftops for days for help to arrive. Many of the community members I spoke with told me terrible stories of dispair during that time. In addition to seeing thier home destroyed, stories of exposure, trying to survive on little food and water, and witnessing family members and neighbors die revealed a great deal of post-tramatic stress.

One man, Smitty, whose house I worked on said while giving us a tour of L9: “A lot of people think, what for? What do we have to come back to? So I can be the only person on my block? So I can deal with filling out all the paper work and getting the insurance company to approve every little detail while I rebuild? There’s no community here, no security. No, a lot of people think it’s better just to tear it down and move on in life. Start somewhere new that wont just get flooded again. Those people who are moving back are mostly old people like me who don’t know any other way. Those people are coming back to die in the community they grew up in.”

Environmental and Health Concerns:

The major problem with rebuilding homes that were flooded is black mold. All houses are considered toxic until they have been gutted down to the siding and studs.

Here are some photos of the gutting process:

Another problem is the quality of soil in L9. Most of these homes were built using asbestos. As they flooded, this asbestos got into the water and then leeched into the soil. Given the magnitude of this flood, it is likely the soil is contaminated with a multitude of other chemicals as well. One man told me his body broke out in lesions after swimming in flood water. Soil quality is so bad that residents cannot even have gardens as it is considered toxic. This undoubtedly has concerning implications to the surrounding ecosystems.

The Future:

While the outlook appears bleak for this community, reconstruction is happening. While a slow process New Orleans has seen a surge of grass roots organizing inorder to reconstruct not only the homes families but also the community that once existed there. Organizations such as Common Ground Relief, Lower 9, and NOLA Urban Farmers Coalition work directly with community members to provide sustainable support socially, economically, environmentally and even provide legal advise. When I returned to the L9th last summer I could see their efforts had in fact caused change for the better. More people were returning to reconstruct their homes, businesses were reopening, and even the reclamation of a community park. I even got to see some progress on homes I did work on.

February 2009

June 2011

Ventura, California. The Blighted Petrochem Refinery

A Personal Account:

While traveling with a friend during the summer of 2011 we found our way to Los Angeles, where my brother Kyle lives. He said that one of his friends had told him of an enormous abandoned oil refinery 65 miles north west of LA out side a town called Ventura. Knowing my passion for blighted landscapes, we piled in the car to go check it out. Minutes before we arrived we passed through a small town called Ojai. This streets of this desolate town were empty and the number of boarded up homes suggested that this was a place very few people called home. The hillsides of this valley were littered with oil well pumps, many of which were frozen, no longer extracting valuable fossil fuels. Such an image led me to believe that perhaps this town developed  during its heyday of oil extraction but then faded as the number of barrels dwindled. Minutes later we found ourselves parked next to the decaying Petrochem Refinery. For then next several hours we would explore its landscape, contemplating its history, searching for hidden secrets and marveling at the artists who had made the rusting metal their canvas.

Here is an arial view of the Petrochem Refinery. The diversity of equipment number of storage tanks (bottom right) hints at the scale of production once maintained by this facility.

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History:

While I originally assumed this facility was closed due to the tapping of oil reserves, I discovered in my research that Petrochem Refinery actually ceased operations due to environmental concerns and the outcry of the surrounding community.

Petrochem Refinery was constructed by Shell Oil Company and began operation in 1950’s. Its original function was to manufacture and refine urea fertilizer. A number of tanks in the field we labeled “AMONIA” which upon reflection, were most likely of the oldest artifacts on the property. In 1972 the plant was sold to USA Petroleum who developed the property to refine crude oil extracted from the surrounding landscape. During it’s heyday, this facility refined 20,000 barrels of oil a day (900,000 gallons) with the capability of storing 850,000  barrels (380,250,000 gallons) in reserve tanks. In 1980, USA Petroleum laid plans for a $100,000,000 expansion however the community organization Citizens to Preserve the Ojai (CPO), experiencing the impacts of such massive production, were able to stop the expansion claiming the facility was an environmental hazard. With the inability to expand, profits dwindled and operations ceased in 1984. While numerous proposals have risen to redevelop the property, either into another manufacturing industry or shockingly residential land, these projects have been turned down. This is likely do to the great cost the developer would have to pay to remediate the property as various contaminants are believed to have leeched into the soil underneath it, a potential threat to human health. As of this time no study has been performed to determine the extent this contamination has occurred.

Environmental and Human Impact: 

Oil refineries emit numerous gases which are toxic to humans and the environment including  sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen fluoride, chlorine, and benzene. As these gases are emitted they pollute air but also have the potential to contaminate ground water as they fallout into water bodies or leech into soil.  In addition, particulate matter (PM), leads to the formation of smog. This smog was the main argument the Citizens to Preserve Ojai used to stop the expansion of USA Petroleum. When the expansion was proposed the Citizens to Preserve Ojai demanded an Environmental Impact Report which later found that the expansion would be in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.

This image, from GOOGLE maps, shows the location of Petrochem Refinery between Ventura, to the south, and Ojai, to the north. Given this context it is unsurprising that most complaints came from citizens of Ojai as opposed to Ventura. Citizens would report that coastal winds would bring smog from the refinery through the valley and to Ojai. It is likely that much of this smog was avoided by Ventura given its coastal location. 

It is also interesting to note the aesthetic impact that this refinery had in sculpting the landscape. A careful examination of the image above shows a series of tan spots spreading out horizontally just south of the refinery. The image below shows greater revealing that each tan spot is in fact a crude oil well pump.

Today Petrochem Refinery remains undeveloped, undemolished, and for sale. At one time this facility produced mass amounts of refined oil and other petroleum based chemicals, the side affects of which negatively impacted its surrounding community and eventually let to its closure. The question of why Ojai today remains very much a derelict town still remains unanswered, however my research reveled that at one time Ojai was a tightly knit and determined community. A community that took action against a multi-million dollar business to protect their air, land and water.  While the future of Petrochem Refinery is unwritten, for now it silently waits and welcomes the occasional vistior ranging from researchers to artists and those few curious individuals who marvel in the beautiful decay of industrial landscapes.

Sources:
The California Environmental Quality Act. CITIZENS TO PRESERVE THE OJAI, an Organization, Appellant, v. The COUNTY OF VENTURA By and Through Its BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, Respondents, USA PETROCHEM COMPANY, a Corporation, Real Party in Interest. Rep. no. 176 Cal.App.3d 42 Civ. B-011716. Ventura: CEQA, 1985. Print.
Fulton, Bill. Mayor Fulton Explains Stalemate at North Avenue. Publication. City of Ventura, 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <Blogger.com>.-
Soltz, Kit. “Tar on Your Foot. The down and Dirty on the City of Venturas Oil Legacy.” Ventura County Reporter. Southland Publishing, 16 Apr. 2009. Web. 02 May 2012.
Sommer, Constance. “Ventura Council to Weigh Plan for Homes on Ex-Refinery Site : Development: Decision Bypasses Environmentalists Concerns over Land at North End of Avenue.” LosAngelesTimes.com. 11 Jan. 1995. Web. 29 Apr. 2012.

About

Abandonments can be found throughout our world. Some rest in the form of derelict factories, other times as forgotten homes dotting the countryside. While some may consider these relics of the past as eyesores that should be demolished, it is important to recognize that these ruins contain a deep and often complex history. As we document this history we attempt to uncover the intrinsic relationship between these forgotten buildings and the environment that surrounds them. How did they affect their environment and community during their operation? Why were they abandoned and what is their environmental impact now as they decay back into the earth?