Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, best known for his no-nonsense leadership in New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina, returned to the city Monday night in his new role: condemning entire generations of Louisiana lawmakers for an acquiescence to major chemical companies that is now compromising the future of the state.
Speaking before the Louisiana Landmarks Society at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in the center of Uptown New Orleans, Honore may have been preaching to the choir, or, as he calls them, his “Green Army.” What they really wanted to know — like so many audiences the general has spoken to around the state — is whether Honore plans to run for governor.
Honore’s address is built on broad themes: the unbelievable sacrifices made for freedom by every past generation of Americans, the responsibility to preserve those freedoms and pass them on, and the unchecked damage to natural resources by reckless petrochemical companies and the politicians who willingly enable them.
The American revolutionaries were hopelessly outmatched, Honore says, but prevailed over one of the world’s mightiest armies because they were rallied to the common cause of freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Every generation since then has an obligation to continue that fight, no matter how impossible the odds seem, he said.
“They were fighting for something greater than them, that generations following would reap the benefits of that fight,” Honore said.
Part of that responsibility, Honore said, is that we pass on to our children a healthy environment, but on that account, Louisiana lawmakers have failed miserably for decades.
“What our ancestors fought for was the human right that everybody would have access to clean water, clean air and safe food,” Honore said. “That is under assault every day.”
‘Not supposed to smell bad’
Honore had no shortage of local environmental disasters to illustrate his points.
- The salt-dome collapse in Assumption Parish, he said, was because the company that owned is legally allowed to regulate itself — in other words, they can claim to have done nothing illegal because there is so little the law requires of them. Not only that, but the company is four years behind on its taxes — and the state couldn’t figure out how much it owed, because it had not been monitoring the company’s activity, Honore said.
- In the Gulf of Mexico — where the BP spill in 2010 threatened the future of Louisiana’s cherished seafood industry — oil companies originally had to promise to allow the land to be reclaimed when they left, Honore said. But lawmakers then changed that law, allowing them to leave the wells open if they thought they might come back, and today there are 6,000 abandoned oil wells, he said.
“Everything has been done by the legislators over the years on the side of this industry,” Honore said. “Our environment cannot afford it.”
- Other chemical plants dot the landscape, and have been known to release toxins into the groundwater or even explode. They ought to be required to have reverse-911 systems to warn surrounding residents of spills and airline-style “black boxes” to record what’s going on, Honore said, but instead no one knows when a chemical is released until neighbors start to smell it — and the companies can then negotiate their own punishment afterward.
“It’s not, ‘Don’t worry about it; it just tastes funny.’ It’s not supposed to taste funny. It’s not supposed to smell bad,” Honore said of the water and the air. “God gave us these senses for a reason.”
- Every year, agriculture runoff from around the Mississippi River basin creates an area of the Gulf off our coast with so little oxygen that it is known as the “dead zone.”
- Oilfield wastewater known to be toxic is not considered hazardous under Louisiana law, Honore said, so other states ship it here for storage.
- When the state’s levee board — appointed to be free of political meddling — filed a lawsuit last year seeking to make oil companies pay for damage caused over decades, Gov. Bobby Jindal began trying to replace the levee board members.
And all of these decisions are made, Honore said, in the name of “good jobs” and the fear that these companies might leave.
“If terrorists came and said they would create jobs, would we let them in?” Honore said.
Running for office?
When Honore began taking questions from the audience, the topic quickly turned to whether he would run for governor himself. Although Honore reportedly told a crowd at the University of Louisiana at Monroe last week that these issues “tempt” him to run, he downplayed the chances of a gubernatorial bid on Monday.
“I’m not running because my wife said, ‘No,'” Honore said. “I think about it, I take a good nap and I’m over it.”
More seriously, Honore said his platform would never win. In addition to his environmental advocacy, his top priority would be enhancing preschool through high school public education with the latest technology — though not college, which he said students should pay for on their own. He also said he would advocate consolidating “half” of the small town and parish governments around the state, calling them unwieldy.
“My platform wouldn’t carry water,” Honore said — to which an audience member called out, echoing his earlier statements about leadership: “Don’t be afraid of the impossible!”
Instead, Honore said his present focus is a legislative agenda, creating more oversight and regulation on behalf of clean air and water. New issues arise every day, he said, pointing to the recent amoeba in the St. Bernard Parish drinking-water supply and Sunday’s oil spill in the Mississippi River.
“Some people might say it’s exaggeration. Go walk this city for three blocks, you’ll smell something. Go to the river, and there’s poison in it,” Honore said. “This is real. We have been blessed, but we’ve got to have new rules to protect us.”
To hear the first part of Honore’s address, see the video below: