PART II of Nature's Revenge: Louisiana's Vanishing Wetlands from American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR NewsSM. On the Internet at

September 2002

An Unlikely Activist

by Daniel Zwerdling

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Scientists and environmentalists have been warning about the destruction of Louisiana's coast since the 1960s, but it's been hard to get anybody that "matters" to care until recently.

Roswell King Milling is probably one of the last people in Louisiana who you would expect to fight for the environment. People call him, "King." He's president of one of the oldest banks in the South. He's modest about it.

"We're a $7 billion bank," explains Milling, "which in today's world is not a large bank.

"Well, I mean, it's large for us."

When he walks across the marble floors at headquarters in New Orleans, Milling looks like a Hollywood version of old money. He's tall and gracious. He has a dazzling white mane.

"How you doin'?" he calls out. "Fine-thank-you-an-yourself."

King Milling is a friend of the governor. He was king of Mardi Gras. There's a whole town named after his family. And before he took over the Whitney National Bank, Milling was one of the most powerful lawyers for the oil and gas industry.

"Hey McMan, how ya doin'?" Milling asks.

A Banker's Crusade

But a few years ago, Milling had a revelation. And today, this banker is spearheading an environmental crusade. He takes me to his wood-paneled chambers to show what changed him.

"I think you begin to understand the magnitude when you look at this."

Milling unfurls a map of Louisiana on his conference table. The way he tells the story, an environmentalist stopped by a few years ago to talk about the wetlands. He told Milling that if they keep disappearing, it could wipe out some kinds of fish. It could wipe out millions of migratory birds that stop in the wetlands every year. Milling says as the activist kept talking, he started getting annoyed. But then something suddenly clicked. At this point in the story, Milling's voice drops almost to a whisper. When he talks, people lean forward to hear him.

"Finally I looked up at him in the middle of it and said, 'My friend, the heck with the birds and the fishes.' I think it jolted him a little bit and I said, 'This is not about the birds and the bees, it's about whether the economic prosperity of Louisiana can continue.'"

Milling says, here's what hit him: Banks like his have invested billions of dollars in businesses across the region. He points to the dots sprinkled across the map. He says you'll find a Whitney National Bank in the heart of every one of those towns.

"You know this whole area is composed of ship-building yards, fabrication yards, gas-processing plants, chemical installations.

"Those towns that are located up and down the various bayous and rivers form the cornerstone of wealth in south Louisiana."

And on this map, those towns are surrounded by splotches of red and pink— which signifies that the wetlands around them are vanishing. Milling says the more he looked at the map, the more he realized that if the wetlands wash away, his bank's investments could wash away. The state's whole economy could be crippled.

"It has everything to do with whether or not Louisiana as we know it will survive in the future." (BECKY--USE AS PULL QUOTE)

Barnstorming the State

So this powerful banker has decided to help lead a campaign to try to save the wetlands. King Milling is barnstorming around the state. He's preaching to power-brokers who'd think twice about letting an environmentalist through their doors. He's giving speeches to the Chamber of Commerce and the Top 50 Businessmen's Club. He's lobbying fellow bankers and lawyers. And Milling keeps telling them, 'If you still don't understand why the wetlands are crucial, please drive to a spot on Louisiana's coast and talk to a man named Ted Falgout."

"This little dot on the map, this small place in Cajun southeastern Louisiana, on the Gulf of Mexico," Falgout will tell you, "plays a strategic role in furnishing this country with somewhere between 16 and 18 percent of its entire hydrocarbon supply— that's oil and gas."

The Oil and Gas Industry's Command Center

They call this place Port Fourchon. This is the base, the command center, which supports the huge oil and gas industry out in the Gulf of Mexico. It's like a giant scar in the middle of the wetlands. There's a jumble of ships and docks and helicopters, and oil refineries and barbed wire. And then just beyond them you can see the beginnings of miles of grassy marsh. Ted Falgout runs Port Fourchon for the state. He says, "You think the Alaska pipeline's important? This place handles twice as much oil and gas."

"There's no other place in this country," continues Falgout, "that plays such a great role in providing this nation's oil and gas supply."

There are thousands of offshore drilling rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico. They send a lot of their oil and gas to the mainland through this port. The U.S. buys millions of barrels of oil from the Middle East. Much of that fuel comes to America through this port. And here's the problem: The industry distributes most of that fuel through pipelines, which are buried under the wetlands, all along this coast.

"We look just to my right here and we have the Mars pipeline. This is a pipeline from the deep-water Gulf of Mexico. This single pipeline is carrying 400,000 barrels of crude oil a day through it. And as the marsh deteriorates, these pipelines are vulnerable," Falgout says.

The energy companies dug trenches deep in the soil, on the assumption that would keep the pipelines safe. But now the land around them is crumbling.

Exposed Pipes

At the moment, we're standing on the shoulder of the highway that leads into the port. The telephone poles beside it are sinking in water. There are little waves lapping near our shoes.

"Twenty years ago this was dry land," describes Falgout. "You could go out 500 or 600 feet and not wet your shoes."

Now it's basically a lake.

"Two weeks from now," says Falgout, "you'll have shrimpers, when the in-shore season opens and there will be vessels right up against this roadway catching shrimp. We're seeing thousands upon thousands of acres of land just disappear."

So now, pipes that used to be deep in the ground are getting exposed in this open water— in fact, there was a nasty oil spill earlier this year when a boat apparently sliced one of British Petroleum's lines. Ted Falgout says the company has reburied seven miles of pipeline, right near where we're standing, and it cost them millions of dollars. Consider the fact that there are 20 thousand miles of pipelines under this vanishing coast.

"So we're taking billions of dollars to come in and repair and hopefully fix these things before we have a major disaster where we have pipeline ruptures and we have huge oil spills as a result of the coastal land loss."

A National Problem

That's just one reason why business and political leaders in Louisiana say the whole country must try to save their wetlands. Scientists say it'll take one of the biggest construction projects in America's history: they'll need to change the flow of the Mississippi River. They'll need to build entire islands in the Gulf of Mexico, to shield the wetlands from waves. The project could easily cost tens of billions of dollars. And it doesn't take a banker like King Milling to realize that Louisiana can't afford it. So Milling and other power-brokers are designing a national advertising campaign to persuade you, the nation's taxpayers, that you should foot the bill.

On a recent morning, Milling and the governor's staff huddle in the state capitol, to put the finishing touches on their campaign. They've hired a consultant to craft the message.

"The first objective of the campaign is the designing of the message itself, the themes that define the problem and the impact of the erosion of Louisiana's wetlands," the consultant says. "Any thoughts on this?"

Business leaders like Milling don't know much environmental science, but they do know the power of marketing. So they've hired the veteran political consultant to help them "sell" the wetlands issue to voters and to Congress. The consultant's name is Val Marmillion. He looks very Los Angeles— buzz cut, bright blue glasses. He stands in front of a flipchart and briefs Milling and the others on his marketing strategy:

"To do it right, we're gonna have to make it an issue of national concern," Marmillion says. "We need to get a big, broad slice of the public in here some kind of way."

America's Wetland

He knows it's going to be tough to get Congress to vote for billions of dollars for wetlands in Louisiana, especially when everyone's worried about the economy and terrorism. So Marmillion has been test-marketing patriotic slogans to "brand" the campaign.

" 'America's Wetland' was the outright choice in the Pennsylvania focus group," Marmillion explains, "actually a unanimous choice. All said that if this is of national importance, we've got to make this America's issue, not Louisiana's, and so the brand has got to talk about how Louisiana benefits the nation in economic terms and others if we're going to get to those themes. Any thoughts on this?"

After the meeting, I sit down with Marmillion. The governor's lobbyist, a woman named Sidney Coffee, joins us too. The marketing meeting has sounded almost like they're selling soap or cereal or cars. Some people might wonder, 'Is this a seemly way to educate the public about vanishing wetlands?'

Marmillion says, "Yeah, I think it's an honest way. We are in a media age that many people decry all the time, but we are in competition with a lot of other stories out there. And you use the mechanisms of the day to tell your story."

Coffee adds, "You know people basically know the truth when they hear it. And when I saw the faces on some of the people in the Philadelphia focus group when Val read the situational analysis that talks about the incredible amount of loss that we're experiencing, they were horrified. And they were angry that no one had told them about it, they couldn't believe it was happening, and in their opinion, it was like, 'This is a major disaster happening here on our shores, and we need to do something about it.'"

But these political and business leaders don't have illusions— they're going to face lots of hurdles when they get to Congress. For instance: Louisiana's corrupt political past could haunt them.

"That is correct, we have a very checkered history, " acknowledges Jack Caldwell, who runs the state's department of natural resources. He just took part in the marketing session. Now he's strolling under the magnolias on the capitol grounds. Caldwell says he realizes that some members of Congress might hesitate to send money to a state where everybody from Governors to sheriffs has gone on trial.

"For example, our insurance commissioner," Caldwell says. "You're not gonna believe this— the last three in a row have been convicted of felonies. Three in a row of elected insurance commissioners."

Caldwell laughs, but adds, "I'm telling you, it's changing." He says the governor is trying to stamp out corruption.

The Industry's Share

And there's another touchy issue: Louisiana's leaders want the nation's taxpayers to pay to fix the wetlands, but they're not demanding money from the industry that helped destroy them.

"It's ludicrous and it's unjust, " says Oliver Houck, who runs the environment program at Tulane University's law school. Houck says major studies show that the wetlands are crumbling partly because the oil and gas companies tore them up. Over the last fifty years, the companies dredged thousands of canals across the wetlands to make it easier to drill wells and lay pipelines.

"Everybody knows the oil and gas industry is a huge actor in all of this, but nobody goes the next step and says since they're big part of the problem, why don't they help clean it up?" Houck explains, "It's unjust— because they happen to be the richest kid on the block— they happen to be walking away from a scene of destruction they have caused. And they should be paying their bill."

The leaders of the campaign to save the wetlands say it's true, the oil and gas companies have played a big role in destroying them. But King Milling says it's not fair to punish the companies today, for something they did decades ago, especially since government officials encouraged the industry to tear up the wetlands. Everybody wanted their oil and gas.

Milling explains, "I don't remember anyone at that time suggesting that they didn't want the petroleum products. Everybody was doing what they thought was the right thing at the time."

Oliver Houck says that's not why they're tiptoeing around the energy industry.

"Oil and gas is the dominant industry in this state," he says. "It's like cattle in Nevada. Sugar in Florida. It's the tail that wags the dog. It would be very, very difficult for a public official to back an initiative that was not to the oil companies' liking— and that includes making them help pay to fix the mess in the wetlands that they've created."

An energy industry spokesman told me that they'll think about helping finance the wetlands projects— if and when they see a firm plan.

But the nation can debate all that in the future. First, business leaders like King Milling need to convince you and your legislators that a national treasure is dying in their backyard, and you have the power to save it. A lot of debates in this country have pit the economy against the environment. But back at his headquarters at the Whitney National Bank, Milling says he's learned a lesson: When it comes to the wetlands of southern Louisiana, the environment is the economy.

"And if it's allowed to fail, the economy will fail, and then we've lost everything."