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This La. battle is between big industry and a Green Army

General Russel Honore commanded an infantry division in Korea and saw action in Operation Desert Storm, but it was his service as Commander of the Joint Task Force Katrina in 2005 that won him national acclaim. The experience of viewing Louisiana’s industrial pollution up close, he says, also radicalized him. Now an environmental activist, the general is taking on big oil. Paul Solman reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    Now: A retired general takes on a new mission.

    Over the past few months, economics correspondent Paul Solman has been reporting on the tensions in Louisiana between energy production, jobs and environmental concerns.

    Tonight, he looks at a most unlikely battle that's been playing out on that front.

    It's part of our regular series Making Sense.

  • General Russel Honore:

    Our greatest gift has become our problem.

  • Paul Solman:

    General Russel Honore earned three stars during his Army career and a lot of nicknames, the Ragin' Cajun.

  • General Russel Honore:

    Don't get stuck on stupid, reporters.

  • Paul Solman:

    The Black John Wayne.

  • General Russel Honore:

    Hey, weapons down! Weapons down, damn it!

  • Paul Solman:

    The Category 5 General.

  • General Russel Honore:

    The next 24 hours will be critical to us, as we try to evacuate the approximately 25,000 people at the convention center.

  • Paul Solman:

    Honore had commanded the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea, saw action in Operation Desert Storm, was commanding general of the 1st U.S. Army.

  • General Russel Honore:

    Hey, tiger. Hey, tiger. Let's go.

  • Paul Solman:

    But it was his service in 2005 as commander of the Joint Katrina Task Force that won him national acclaim and, he says, it radicalized him.

  • General Russel Honore:

    I remember flying out from New Orleans on a Navy helicopter, and as we were flying out, I saw these streaks of oil. And I asked the pilots, what in the hell is that? He said, "General, that's the oil derricks that have fallen over." And I said, oh, my God.

  • Paul Solman:

    Louisiana's greatest gift, the basis for its economy, was, Honore suddenly realized, perhaps its biggest problem.

    The three-star retired from the Army in 2008, eventually moved back home to his native Louisiana, where he began a new career as an environmental activist, in his TED Talk, for example.

  • General Russel Honore:

    Our coastline is disappearing. And it can be measured by the hour, not the year. Our air's some of the worst in America. And many of the industries we have create high rates of cancer among our people.

    We must act now, because the future that we fear is here.

  • Paul Solman:

    The general thinks he knows a disaster when he sees one. And he found plenty in his own backyard, starting with Bayou Corne, about an hour's drive south of Baton Rouge, near a strip of the Mississippi studded with petrochemical plants known as Cancer Alley.

    On August 3, 2012, Bayou Corne cracked open into a giant sinkhole, leaving an oil-slicked lake.

    Mike Schaff, an offshore drilling platform worker, had lived in Bayou Corne since the early '90s.

  • Mike Schaff:

    This pipeline right here is where this whole bayou right here was bubbling, little bubbles all over the place. It looked like Alka-Seltzer in there.

  • Paul Solman:

    The bayou sits on what's called a salt dome, which had been mined for decades by a firm called Texas Brine, creating a cavern. What caused the sinkhole?

  • Mike Schaff:

    What caused it was the cavern collapse.

  • Paul Solman:

    As "NOVA" explained in a 2015 documentary, rock and soil poured in through a breach in the cavern wall. And this, in turn, sucked the surface down into a massive sinkhole. For months, gas shot out of the vent wells.

    But was it dangerous?

  • Mike Schaff:

    Oh, yes. If it got through your cracks in your slab and into your house, then you, if you threw a light switch on, if your home was filled up with the gas, it would explode the home.

  • Paul Solman:

    This is the slab of Mike Schaff's home.

  • Mike Schaff:

    That's my house, what's left of it.

  • Paul Solman:

    It didn't explode. Texas Brine eventually bought out the residents of Crawfish Stew Street, tearing down some houses, moving others, even though Schaff and some neighbors had wanted to stay.

  • Mike Schaff:

    This doesn't look like paradise to people, but it is to me.

  • Paul Solman:

    A lawsuit led to a settlement with Texas Brine. General Honore had been called in for help.

  • Man:

    Everybody knows about him, with the work that he's done for Katrina, the work he's done in our military, and now the work he's doing with us.

  • General Russel Honore:

    They said, the state's not helping us. The federal government is not helping us. And we created the Green Army to help give voice.

  • Paul Solman:

    A Green Army of environmental activists, but how to recruit in such a red state?

  • General Russel Honore:

    If I go in and say , I'm talking about global warming, nobody's going to listen. They will get up and walk out.

  • Paul Solman:

    Because that's such an ideological trigger?

  • General Russel Honore:

    Right. It's fake news. It's a hoax. Well, bull—- We got pollution.

  • Paul Solman:

    Which is why the general has taken to the speech circuit to make the larger case.

  • General Russel Honore:

    How many people like clean air? How many people like clean, safe water? How many people like their crawfish without any oil on them?

  • Paul Solman:

    We contacted the state's five largest industry groups about General Honore's comments. All declined an on-camera interview.

    But, in a joint written statement, three of the groups said — quote — "Industry in our state works as a willing partner with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, our communities, our partners and employees, to ensure that our most precious assets, our environment and our citizens, are protected. The entire state of Louisiana continues to meet all of the U.S. EPA's national ambient air quality standards."

    Meanwhile, back on the bayou: You were, and are, a member of the Tea Party, right?

  • Mike Schaff:

    That is correct.

  • Paul Solman:

    So is Mike Schaff enlisting in General Honore's Green Army a harbinger?

    Are fellow conservatives like you becoming more environmentally aware?

  • Mike Schaff:

    My barometer on how many of my friends are with me on certain issues is my Facebook posts. I would say 80 percent of the time, I post something conservative.

  • Paul Solman:

    And how many likes do you get on ?

  • Mike Schaff:

    I get many likes. And then, when I post something about the environment, I get four or five likes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    So you're still an outlier in conservative circles?

  • Mike Schaff:

    I — yes, yes. But, you know, I'm not banished.

    Around here, it's oil industry that has got them. The logic that's thrown at the people, including myself, is that, if we restrict them or regulate them, then they're going to pick up and move, and we're not going to have those jobs.

  • Paul Solman:

    But with the jobs may come risks, says Schaff.

  • Mike Schaff:

    Everybody here that passed away while I was here — I lived here for 25 years — died of cancer.

  • Paul Solman:

    Everyone?

  • Mike Schaff:

    Everyone that died, died of cancer.

  • Paul Solman:

    Ten out of 100 residents, says Schaff, and Schaff himself has kidney cancer and a sarcoma on his leg.

  • Mike Schaff:

    Who's to know, you know, if it wasn't my lifestyle or anything like that? We have chemical plants along the river about 20 miles that way. But if you want to live in paradise, you have to sacrifice something.

  • Paul Solman:

    Russel Honore doesn't see it that way.

  • General Russel Honore:

    No, I'm generally pissed off. I spent 37 years, three months and three days defending this country. I spent 9.5 years overseas, OK, in some of the most horrific places you ever want to see and have to work in and train.

    And to come back to my home state and see it controlled by multinational corporations is a crying, damn shame. That's the Exxon flag on top of the capitol.

  • Paul Solman:

    Is that the Exxon flag? No. No.

  • General Russel Honore:

    OK, physically, it is not, but, mentally, it is.

  • Paul Solman:

    Now, Honore's beef isn't with ExxonMobil in particular. It's with the entire industry.

  • General Russel Honore:

    They own the legislature. The companies do. Less regulation brings you more pollution.

  • Paul Solman:

    But it also brings you more growth.

  • General Russel Honore:

    Well, you don't see that growth bearing out, because we're the third largest energy producer, and we're the second poorest state.

  • Paul Solman:

    ExxonMobil had no comment.

    In their joint statement, the three industry groups said: "There are many voices speaking on behalf of Louisiana families, workers and businesses at the capitol. They all have an important role to play in the democratic process. We are proud of our efforts to promote free enterprise and economic growth on behalf of Louisiana employers and entrepreneurs of all sizes working to improve our great state."

  • Woman:

    Enough is enough.

  • Paul Solman:

    But General Honore is paying a price for his activism. For example, his work in Saint Rose, Louisiana, where residents were sickened by emissions from a plant operated jointly by a company called IMTT and Shell Oil.

    Two months later, says Honore, he was asked to resign from the board of Crawford & Company, an insurance claims manager.

  • General Russel Honore:

    The chairman said: "We have a pending contract with Shell." And they said, "They won't give us that contingency contract if you're on our board. We got to look out for the employees here, General."

    I said, well, you're right. And that May meeting was my last meeting.

  • Paul Solman:

    Crawford & Company had no comment, and Shell told us the matter was under investigation.

    As for the general, he is undeterred.

  • General Russel Honore:

    I'm still in this fight, and it's not over. And one of these days, we will get them.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," business and economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from Louisiana.

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