Ken Ford Fights for Chalmette

Ghosts linger in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish. Before you meet cancer survivor Ken Ford of Chalmette, you must first meet the ghosts. They come on wings of natural and man-made disasters. They slip in through the cracks of poverty. You can spot them in the worst manifestations of American culture. You hear their voices murmur from history, always challenging the irony of who gets to live, and die.

Ken Ford
Activist Ken Ford speaks to a television crew while red balloons representing cancer victims bob in the background.© Piper Hanson

On the outskirts of Chalmette, the massive Six Flags Theme Park sits abandoned. The rides thrust their steel loops and tracks into the air like dislocated limbs. The park is a symbol of American entertainment: big, fast, loud, sensational, escapist, mechanical — and disposable. Soon enough, it will be left behind like a Wal-Mart shopping center, remaining long after the gates close, maybe outliving the soft patches of green marsh floating across the highway.

In Chalmette, the landscape is disheveled. Billboards flap in a slight wind. “For Sale” signs abound like a town logo. Debris litters the yards, although one yard sign advertises “Designer Lawn Care.” FEMA trailers crowd school parking lots, and a mobile home is marked in bold lettering: “LAW OFFICE.”

Driving down St. Bernard Highway, a stunning antebellum alley of live oak trees unfolds like a carpet at the feet of royalty—in this case, a smokestack silently issuing a column of fumes. In the highway”s median, the ragged brick foundation of an antebellum structure protrudes like broken teeth, its charming ruins protected by an enclosure of wrought iron fencing.

Exxon”s Chalmette refinery sprawls to the left; a commercial strip stretches to the right. Few businesses are operating. Some windows gape opened, punched out by Katrina”s hurricane-force winds. Piles of lumber, metal, appliances, tires and mattresses litter empty lots.

People are up and about, conducting the daily business of life. Some look depressed; others, upbeat. A sign near the St. Bernard Port”s property reads: “Think positive, St. Bernard. We do!” Across the street, a message spray-painted on a roof seems like a voice waiting for an echo: “Chalmette spirit, salt of the earth!”

Neighborhoods near the refinery are deserted. Homes lack electricity. Drab wooden-frame houses shed paint among lush weeds. FEMA trailers are squeezed onto tiny lots. An acrid odor lingers in the air. Yet the trees are green, touching the blue horizon, and crape myrtle blooms.

Down Carroll Street, a little activity stirs. A man in his late 60s stands in front of his trailer, recording an interview with a TV cameraman at an impromptu press conference. He wears khaki pants and a lavender shirt. Fifteen red balloons are leashed to poles and mailboxes, standing still. There”s no wind to lift them or child to release them into the sky. They are grave markers today, each representing one of the 15 residents who died of cancer on that single block of Carroll Street. One resident had seven types of cancer.

Ken Ford, the man in the lavender shirt, has been a lone-voice activist fighting the Chalmette refinery”s practices for 45 years. He had a lung removed, and was diagnosed with bladder cancer, enduring 47 chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“We got people here in FEMA trailers,” says Ford. “There”s no electricity. They have no phones and televisions. They need a siren to warn them of chemical releases,” he adds, referring to a July 31 hydrogen sulfide release that sent several people to the hospital.

“We need more air monitors,” Ford continues. “None of our monitors were downwind of the release. We”re in a terrible situation. We need help. The parish has infrastructure problems, but we need to put the health of the people first.”

Between sessions, Ford talks to reporters. “We can”t sleep here with our windows open. You can smell this stuff all the time. You get sick from it. What the hell are we supposed to do?”

Ann Rolfes, Ford’s partner and head of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, says to the cameraman: “It”s a new day in St. Bernard Parish, a chance for a new start. We want ExxonMobil to be a good corporate citizen and take responsibility for the health of the people here. We”re asking Exxon to buy out this property and create a buffer zone. Not many people are in their homes right now. Why shouldn”t we take the chance to get people away from this smell?”

Ann Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade proposes a buffer zone around the ExxonMobil Chalmette refinery. © Piper Hanson

Ford stands on the curb, demonstrating the use of the Brigade”s namesake: It”s an affordable air monitor for residents, a bucket with a plastic bag and computer vacuum pump that traps air in the bag during a chemical release. The contents of a recent sample from St. Bernard’s Parish, analyzed in California, were found to contain unsafe levels of hydrogen sulfide, benzene and other known cancer-causing agents.

Ford”s battle with the refinery and parish officials who support it started 45 years ago, when his neighbor, Walter Julian, died of cancer. Julian wrung a promise from Ford to fight for justice. “Someone asked me if I would quit the cause for a million dollars. Well, I wouldn”t quit for $5 million,” Ford says.

Most of Ford’s activism has revolved around quarrels with the parish council. He fought to get Exxon to install effective downwind monitors. Exxon stated it had been monitoring the site for years but nothing was showing up. Ford argued that their monitor was “a joke, located two miles away in the weeds near Nunez Community College.” The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality installed several sophisticated monitors around the refinery since then, but Ford believes that more are needed downwind of the refinery.

Rolfes cites statistics for the camera: ExxonMobil”s profits last year were $36 billion
Exxon”s Chalmette refinery violated the Clean Air Act 2,500 times

Ford”s battles with the parish council have been endless. He claims the council fired the parish”s first and only environmentalist who had “mandated clean-ups of industrial accidents” and “shut down a couple of places at the port.” The council stated that the environmentalist position was not needed. Ford also accuses the parish council of refusing to test for ozone in spite of a very high number of asthma cases reported by the coroner before Katrina.

Ford suffers from many ailments. He can”t walk far, can”t converse long without tiring, gets short of breath from just bending over, clears his throat because his body can no longer make saliva. “I have to depend on Brad (he gestures toward his grandson) to help me set up monitors,” says Ford. “I used to be active in carpentry, but now if I hit my arm, it bruises or bleeds.”

On the day he had his left lung removed, Ford attended a parish council meeting. “I said, let me tell you guys, I”m going to the hospital, and when I die, it”s 40 years wasted. I”m trying to tell you to save the people! You can”t say you didn”t know,” he says.

Ford didn”t die that day in the hospital, but he wasn”t expected to live. “I couldn”t walk, and I lost 50 pounds that I never regained. It”s b

een horrible on me, but worse on my wife,” he explains.

The press conference is over. Ford”s large green eyes are deep-set and marked by his disease. Privately, he says matter-of-factly: “I”ve never been much of a Christian or saint, but I think I was sent here with a mission. I don”t think I have long to live. I think
I”m on my way out.”

The parish council refuses to discuss environmental issues with Ford anymore. “Kenny, we”ll name a park after you,” he claims he was told. Ford and his grandson stand in the street now, setting up the bucket monitor, alerted to an intensifying odor. One small American flag droops from a trailer. Ford”s legacy could be named “One Flag Theme Park.” After all, it”s disposable.

CONTACT: Louisiana Bucket Brigade, 504-522-0500;

Andrea Alexander is a freelance writer living in south Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, about a 25-minute drive from Cancer Alley along the Mississippi River.