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15 June, 2009

Agent Orange in the City of New Orleans

The War At Home:
Agent Orange in the City of New Orleans

Agent Orange was born and bred in our backyard to tame the thicket of forest and "savage" people that dwelled in another country. It is still lounging about the water tables and the particulate matter in New Orleans.

Jane Crown Reports

In 1929 the stock market crash was on the lips of people in many cities. New Orleans was no different. There would have been people living in the B. W. Cooper housing project then, mostly of Italian descent; one of my aunts (by marriage) lived in one of them until the latter part of the 1930s.

Nobody seemed to notice when Thompson Hayward Co. moved in near the housing project on an acre plot in 1941. Times were still tough; manned industry, progress and business in general must have been seen as prosperous and worthy of a flailing city. Families needed work—some sense of hope that things were growing and changing.

Things were indeed changing in the city in a major way. Thompson Hayward Co. was cooking chemicals indoors. Inside large kettles, a dry production not unlike the spice companies in some ways—a cayenne of some considerable potency—was being manufactured. Like the goods flowing into the new decade, a new product was emerging.

By 1949 production of chemicals was changing. Folks in this era, twenty years after the Great Crash of 1929, Black Thursday to Black Tuesday, were not looking for any more bad signs. There were now large cooking vats outdoors—the largest gumbo pots you can imagine. The rue was now leaning towards a wet product, and residents were starting to get a hint of what was happening at the plant. The neighbors of Gert Town were complaining of dust in the air and “overflowing outdoor vats.”1

What was overflowing from those pots was an herbicide known as 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). The inherent issue with this toxic defoliant is that once it reaches a peak temperature of 160 degrees Celsius, portions of it can transform into a byproduct called dioxin. Dioxin is the most dangerous human carcinogen known.

Life crawled on until World War II. People must have been too busy to be concerned about what was going on at 7700 Earhart Blvd. Many fathers, sons and brothers were drafted halfway across the world, and those who remained were doing their civic duty, supporting the war effort like any patriotic American would do. A vicious German enemy with a queer little mustache was threatening to rule the world with fascist ideology.

If anybody was thinking about what that secretive little acre held—where cousin Rene or Uncle Salvador may have worked before going off to war—there was little mention of it. They were too busy looking forward. Agent Orange was not used during World War II. “In the early years of World War II, a grant was provided by the National Research Council to develop a chemical to destroy rice crops in Japan (the major food source of the Japanese). 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T (Agent Orange) was the result. A discussion between President Roosevelt and White House Chief of Staff, Admiral William D. Leahy determined that this heinous chemical should not be used." 2

The nuclear age brought with it a fear of bombs and Castro. Kennedy stood down the Cuban Missile Crisis. Again we feared something worlds away which could directly impact us. The year 1961 saw the sale of Thompson Hayward Company and its moniker to T.H. Agriculture (THAN). Although it changed hands, the company still possessed an itching need to destroy our enemies. Deadly toxins were starting to consume the workers behind the large steel doors of Earhart’s sole acre.

One can imagine that many of the men who had returned from World War II were trying to return to some sort of normalcy—going to work for THAN and perhaps inviting their cousins and friends. Jobs had never been an easy thing to come by in New Orleans, in a widespread service industry and a floundering French Quarter that people were calling skid row by the early 1960s. If you were a Gert Town resident, you could very well have been making the chemical dinner inside those gates, and bringing home the proverbial bacon at better wages than most.

By the 1960s the company had been open for business twenty years. Production of herbicides was still actively pursued by THAN. Hippies were out smoking grass and enjoying their own chemical high, preaching free love and peace for mankind. The hard working individuals who were less dreamy lived and conducted daily business in Gert Town, still mostly unaware of the toxins. It was the counterculture revolution and people were more concerned with getting their children into college, and away from the escalating war talk.

Vietnam was on the verge of spilling into something catastrophic, and the company was setting an unparalleled pace to reach its goals in production. Thousands of men were dripping into the jungles of North Vietnam, but they did not go without chemical armor. Their brothers in Gert Town had provided them with a most effective herbicide. Known for the orange stripe on the side of its barrels, some 18 million tons of Agent Orange was used in the era of 'Nam.

Nobody seemed to be looking into the yards to see if there was any change. Nobody was really home, once again, to complain of anything foul reeking in the air. The old clay pipes of New Orleans were just a fact of life. Water is not supposed to have a taste, but New Orleans water has always been a bit grainy and salty. People were simply doing the sign of the cross, shuffling in and out of the Catholic churches and Baptist too, praying for an end to the conflict. The conflict raged on at home and across leagues of a foreign sea.

The year 1971 ushered in many other new bad boys on the block: Diedrin, Aldrin, Chlordane and dry cleaning agents were contained in the old factory. Newer fluids and progressive chemicals suited the community needs. Herbicides were still in fashion for farmer and city dweller alike. The crisis in Vietnam had ended and Agent Orange was now an internationally banned agent, having been used from 1961-1971.

Now here in our story things start to slow a pace. Like the horse and buggy by the curb waiting for an easy fare and jaunt through the Garden District or Quarter, things were sort of limping along. There was no more wet production inside or outside of 7700 Earhart. At the height of disco in 1976, the owners of the company decided to use the building solely for storage purposes.

While you were listening to Credence Clearwater Revival or ABBA, the doors of the company were rusting from the toxic chemicals being contained inside. Nobody was asking questions. The company quietly turned over its ownership in 1981 to Harcros Chemicals, Inc., and again the THAN moniker was sustained. Bell bottoms, Cadillacs and spectators were creeping out of style, but big business and the fast life were enjoying a new rebirth in industrial greed.

By the time tab collars and high-heeled shoes for men changed again, things were morphing inside the doors of Harcros Chemicals. The company finally closed its chemical gates for production in 1986. Harcros still owned the building and the contents were left to be stored. In 1987, the wrists of Harcros and THAN were slapped for dumping something curious into the New Orleans drains, the identity of which was never disclosed. The cost for Harcros/THAN was around 4 million dollars to remediate the dumping, and they were forced to remove thousands of gallons of liquid toxins along with tons of foul soil.

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