Dumping on Louisiana’s poorest communities

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It’s something of a mixed blessing working as an environmental attorney in Louisiana. On one hand, the power and prevalence of the state’s oil refineries, offshore drilling and chemical plants means that there’s no shortage of environmental cases to handle. On the other hand, it’s been simply heartbreaking to watch what the rise of locals call “Cancer Alley” — stretching from Baton Rouge all the way down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and beyond — and see how it’s affected the lives of everyday citizens.

Over the last couple of years, in writing my new book Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America I’ve had an opportunity to reflect back on my career taking on the energy giants on behalf of local residents and blue-collar workers. One thread stood out: Big Oil has consistently used and abused the poorest and most politically powerless communities across the Gulf Coast. From my very first cases in the Mississippi towns of Laurel and Brookhaven to the oil fields of Martha, Kentucky, to the working class New Orleans suburb of Harvey — where we won a record $1-billion-plus jury award in 2001 — I’ve seen Big Oil treat underprivileged communities like open sewers. I’ve seen toxic and radioactive wastewaters dumped into unlined pits or leak into once-vital streams, and workers sent home every night covered in radioactive dust from head to toe.

But oil isn’t the only ingredient of the state’s pollution cesspool; there have been all sorts of toxic assaults on Louisiana’s working class and poor communities. This week, the outstanding New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow shone a national floodlight on another such case in our state that they market as a Sportsmen’s Paradise, and this one is a real doozy. It involves the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant near the mostly black, lower-income community of Minden. Here, the U.S. defense plant dumped toxic material related to explosive ammunition for decades into pits that have polluted the region’s groundwater supplies.

But, as Blow notes, that is just the beginning of the story:

When the plant ceased production, as The Times-Picayune of New Orleans pointed out, “the Army awarded now-bankrupt Explo Systems a contract in 2010 to ‘demilitarize’ the propellant charges for artillery rounds” on the site. The company conducted “operations” there “until a 2012 explosion sent a mushroom cloud 7,000 feet high and broke windows a mile away in Doyline,” another small community in the area.

But wait, it gets worse.

According to The Shreveport Times, “investigation by state police found the millions of pounds of propellant stored in 98 bunkers scattered around” the site. It turned out that when Explo went bankrupt, it simply abandoned the explosives, known as M6. Now there was a risk of even more explosions, so there was need for a plan to get rid of the M6, and quickly.

(By the way, Shreveport is the largest city near the site, and it, too, is majority black, has a median household income well below the national average and a poverty rate well above it.)

But wait, it gets worse.

According to the website Truthout:

“After months of bureaucratic disputes between the Army and state and federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) recently announced an emergency plan to burn 15 million pounds of M6 — up to 80,000 pounds a day over the course of a year — on open ‘burn trays’ at Camp Minden, a disposal process that environmental advocates say is outdated and has been outlawed in other countries. The operation would be one of the largest open munitions burn in U.S. history.”

Some experts believe that the EPA is seriously underestimating the size of the burn — even with the massive initial estimate — and that the potential health effects are also far worse than projected. This week, a coalition of 71 environmental groups — including the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, or LEAN, a group that I’ve represented in other environmental cases — wrote EPA to protest the plan. They stated in part:

“By definition, open burning has no emissions controls and will result in the uncontrolled release of toxic emissions and respirable particulates to the environment.”

I could not agree more, and I hope the EPA and the other agencies involved go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan that is truly safe for our communities. With the influence of the New York Times in highlighting this matter, there is an actual chance that the burn can be stopped. But this attention only came about because a Times columnist has relatives who live near the site. How many other Mindens are out there? I can’t give you the exact answer, but I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot. And that is a national disgrace.

You can read more about my past cases battling Big Oil in poor Southern communities in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/Crude-Justice.html

Check out columnist Charles M. Blow’s coverage of the Minden dumping controversy in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/22/opinion/charles-blow-inequality-in-the-air-we-breathe.html

Read the letter to the EPA from 71 local and national environmental groups seeking to halt the planned burn of toxic munitions waste: http://www.thenewsstar.com/story/news/local/2015/01/19/national-voices-join-open-burn-opposition/22028903/

© Smith Stag, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

5 comments

  • Thank you so much for bringing this north Louisiana injustice to the attention of the public. PLEASE keep working to ensure that we get a safe disposal of these toxins.

  • This is an excellent article. I can’t wait to read your book. Thank you for letting people know more about this issue. We are trying to protect ourselves from a government that seems bent on destruction of Louisiana, and the surrounding states.

  • Thank you for reporting about the atrocity we are facing in Minden. It is unbelievable that those in place to keep us safe- EPA, DEQ and our silent Governor would even contemplate this method of disposal. The Concerned Citizens demand these officials review the alternative methods for safe disposal and protect the very people that helped elect them into office. We will not settle for less and we will continue to fight for what is right. Again, thank you for sharing our story and we hope it will rise to the national level to bring awareness to not only our crisis, which is the largest amount in US history, but the fact that this is happening nationwide. It must be stopped!

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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