This week only, our readers can download, free of charge, Greg Palast's film, "Big Easy to Big Empty: The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans." Or donate and get a signed DVD. Watch the 1-minute trailer...
Who put out the hit on van Heerden?
Ivor van Heerden is the professor at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center who warned the levees of New Orleans were ready to blow — months and years before Katrina did the job.
For being right, van Heerden was rewarded with ... getting fired. [See Katrina, Four Years Later: Expert Fired Who Warned Levees Would Burst]
But I've been in this investigating game long enough to know that van Heerden's job didn't die of natural causes or academic issues. This was a hit. Some very powerful folks wanted him disappeared and silenced — for good.
So who done it?
Here are the facts.
Dr. van Heerden has lots of friends, mostly the people of New Orleans, those who survived and cheered his fight to save their city. But he also has enemies, many of them, and they are powerful.
First, there is Big Oil. More than a decade ago, van Heerden pointed the finger at oil drilling as a culprit in threatening New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with flooding.
"Certainly he was critical of what the oil companies did to the coast," Louisiana engineer HJ Bosworth told me. "Seeing what kind of bad citizens they were. Dozens and dozens of pipeline canals just carved the living daylights out of the coast just to find some oil."
Well, we need oil, don't we?
True, but Bosworth, who advises Levees.org, a non-profit group that birddogs hurricane safety work, explained the connection between flooding New Orleans and oil drilling quantified by van Heerden's research. "Takes a million years to build (the protective coastal marsh); once you carve it up, it's just like bleeding a wild animal, hang it up, carve some holes in it, and the juice just drains out of it. Saltwater and tide invade. You make [the state] susceptible to flooding from coastal and tidal surges."
So I was amazed to learn that, shortly after van Heerden, wetlands protector, was given the heave-ho by LSU, a group calling itself "America's Wetland" gave the university a fat check for $300,000.
After a little digging, I found that it wasn't really "America's Wetland," the group with the oh-so-green name and love-Mother-Nature website, that provided the money. One-hundred percent of the loot, in fact, came from Chevron Oil Corporation. Chevron had merely "green-washed" the money through "Wetlands."
Was this Big Oil's "thank you" to LSU for canning van Heerden? The University refuses to talk to me about van Heerden's firing ("It's a confidential personnel matter").
Bosworth notes such a grant to the University "doesn't come without strings attached." And this "Wetland" grant appears to have some tangled threads. LSU will monitor the coast's environment, guided by a committee of what the school's PR office describes as "experts" in coastal infrastructure and hurricane research. But the school is pointedly excluding its own expert, van Heerden. Instead of van Heerden, LSU announced it will rely on representatives from Chevron — and Shell Oil.
You can't challenge Shell's expertise on coastal erosion. The Gulf Restoration Network has calculated that the oil giant, "has dredged 8.8 million cubic yards material while laying pipelines since 1983 causing the loss of 22,624 acres."
Shell too is a sponsor of "America's Wetland."