As an environmental lawyer with close ties to Louisiana’s ever-growing community of local activists fighting on the same issues, I’ve been sounding the alarm about the state’s so-called Cancer Alley — the web of massive petrochemical plants lining the lower Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to below New Orleans — for years.
The small river towns between those two cities — mostly black and mostly poor — breathe some of the most polluted air in the United States, as confirmed by federal and state testing, and there’s increasingly powerful evidence that these environmental factors are part of what makes Louisiana’s cancer rates among the nation’s highest.
It’s been gratifying over the last few years to see existing groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, high-profile advocates like Gen. Russel Honore, and a network of smaller ad hoc local groups band together to fight large outside companies from China and elsewhere and their plans to build massive new plastics plants in the heart of Cancer Alley.
These groups are starting to win some battles – but they can’t do it alone. The fight against unchecked pollution in Cancer Alley won’t begin to turn the corner until the state of Louisiana ends its traditions of promising Big Oil and Gas a climate of low taxes and little to no environmental regulations with the aim of luring new jobs. With a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, about to launch his second term, there is much work to do.
In Washington, a good-government group called the Environmental Integrity Project decided to look at what’s happened with environmental enforcement on the level of the 50 states since 2008, or covering roughly a decade. The study was motivated by recent federal policies from the Trump administration that have sharply cut money for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and related groups. The philosophy is that environmental regulation is better left to the states — but are the states really up to the job?
The environmental group found that for Louisiana, the answer has been a resounding No.” Over that decade, the report found, the state’s main regulatory agency — the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ — has slashed its budget by 35 percent while reducing its staff by 30 percent. That was among the worst in the nation, even as Louisiana was constantly in the news for its pollution problems.
It’s not as if the DEQ and its investigators had nothing to do during that time. To the contrary, during those 10 years Louisiana still managed to sign off on 42 major new petrochemical plants or natural gas exporting facilities, and there are 11 more significant new projects that are in the works. State lawmakers and governors from both parties have ensured those plants will open with the absolute minimum amount of oversight.
Even The Advocate, which is now the principal daily newspaper for both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and which takes the fairly conservative position that Louisiana should continue to attract new petrochemical plants for the jobs that they create, recently editorialized that the state’s outgunned regulatory framework is not rational.
“It defies common sense to have DEQ stretched thinner at a time when the state’s leadership is avidly seeking to expand petrochemical manufacturing,” the newspaper wrote in a recent editorial. “If we want the jobs and payrolls of the plants, we must ensure that clean air and water are protected.”
Of course, the lax climate does make sense when one considers that Louisiana and its government have been in the back pocket of Big Oil and Gas since the early days of the industry a century ago, with corruption and a cozy relationship thriving through governments as diverse as the bayou populist Huey Long to small-government conservatives like Bobby Jindal. Even today, the state’s tax structure is geared to aid big polluters.
As ProPublica and NOLA.com recently reported, Louisiana continues to run its generous Industrial Tax Exemption Program, or ITEP, that throws lucrative tax breaks at giant petrochemical firms. That’s costing the state a whopping $1.9 billion in possible revenue, according to the grassroots activist group Together Louisiana.
As the reporting notes, today the ITEP tax break is attracting plants that, more and more often, are prefabricated by workers overseas and require fewer employees to operate once that are assembled here in the United States. That means Louisiana gets all the pollution yet few of the promised economic benefits.
Those policies were never sound, but in an age where scientists increasingly warn of planetary carnage caused by climate change, they are unconscionable. If these petrochemical behemoths are to be built, they should be properly taxed and the revenue should be used for the state to hire the additional regulators needed to protect the public. But for the fate of the earth, it would be even better if most of these plants aren’t even built in the first place.