Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.

Over half a year after Katrina, New Orleans remains in a shambles. But in the face of the federal government’s shamefully lackluster reconstruction effort, progressive activists are stepping up.

Last week, the United Steelworkers (USW) union and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice teamed up to address one of New Orleans’ most pressing yet unaddressed problems: toxic soil. Currently, yards throughout New Orleans are contaminated with deadly heavy metals such as arsenic–some samples of which were 40 times greater than the permitted level–making it unsafe for residents to return to their homes.

“There are no acceptable levels of contamination for the thousands of hurricane victims now living in what resembles a sludge pit – no matter what state and federal environmental officials say,” said Gary Beevers, Director of District 13, which encompasses Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas. “The government was doing next to nothing to remedy these hazards, so the Steelworkers felt like we had to step in and take some action.”

The Steelworker volunteers bring an uncommon expertise to the “Safe Way Back Home” initiative. Their members work in the most dangerous industries of any union– including oil refineries, chemical plants, and rubber factories–and they have been trained to work in toxic environments. USW’s coupling with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice is the latest in its attempt to create strategic partnerships with the environmental movement.

“Others have done a lot of work in the last 30 plus years to divide labor and environmentalists and its been hard work to break down the barriers,” said Jim Fredericks, Assistant Director of the Health, Safety and Environment Dept at USW. “We share more than we differ and we truly need to continue to find our common initiatives.”

The Steelworkers have recently announced a national strategic alliance with the Sierra Club, bringing the largest industrial union and the biggest environmental advocacy group together to fight for clean air, fair trade, and chemical plant security.

Out of Katrina’s toxic sludge, activists are uniting to rebuild not only New Orleans, but the progressive movement.

Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, contributes to The Nation’s new blog, The Notion, and co-writes Sweet Victories with Katrina vanden Heuvel.