How Louisiana missed a large oil spill


One issue that’s come up repeatedly since I launched this website seven years ago has been the multiple failings of Louisiana’s state environmental regulators, especially when it comes to reining in the state’s powerful oil and natural gas interests. For decades, under both Republican and Democratic governors, the regulatory agencies in Baton Rouge haven’t been up to snuff. Sometimes the problem appeared to be a lack of interest in aggressively pursuing big campaign contributors. Other times the failure to stop polluters or to clean up dumping sites seemed more a consequence of incompetence or under-staffing, as various administrations placed little or no emphasis on filling vacancies with the best people, or filling them at all.

In fact, five years ago things got so bad — punctuated by problems at ExxonMobil’s giant refinery near Baton Rouge, where air pollution emergencies went unpunished while residents went unwarned of the possible consequences of breathing the air — that state environmental groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade pleaded with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to come in and take over the state Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ. That didn’t happen; however, in 2015 voters did hand over the power of state government from former Gov. Bobby Jindal, a full-fledged tool of Big Oil, to a Democrat, John Bel Edwards, who has promised a balanced approach on environmental issues.

But real change takes time. A recent incident reported this weekend in the Advocate shows how far environmental protection in Louisiana still needs to go:

A company’s neglect to report a spill has allowed up to 18,480 gallons of oil to stagnate uncleaned in the wetlands of Iberville Parish for at least six months, regulators said Wednesday.

An Office of Conservation inspector noticed the crude oil leak at a Metairie Energy site during a routine inspection on Aug. 29, said Department of Natural Resources spokesman Patrick Courreges.

The next month, the agency sent a formal order to clean the site. However, the work was never done properly, and Metairie Energy did not notify other regulatory agencies as required, representatives of the Department of Environmental Quality and Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office said.

As a result, those groups did not follow-up with the clean-up efforts and DEQ only noticed the effects of the spill in January, said State Police Maj. Doug Cain.

“It was still pretty much a mess when we eventually got there,” said DEQ spokesman Greg Langley.

The company had made some attempts to clean the oil with detergents but did not follow generally-accepted practices, he continued.

Company officials did not return a call for comment.

The lack of communication between the various state agencies — especially the DEQ and the Department of Natural Resources, or DNR — is striking. As the agencies weren’t talking to each other and while the company was shirking its own responsibility to the local community, a 10-acre wetland — Louisiana’s main buffers against tropical storms — was coated in this leaked oil. As the Advocate notes, local law enforcement only learned of the spill when state conservation officers began firing noise cannons in an effort to scare wildlife away from the gooey mess.

This story comes out at the same time that state officials are considering some major new oil and gas projects — most notably the massive Bayou Bridge Pipeline, which is generating considerable opposition. Critics have said that Louisiana has way too many oil and gas spills and that the state has done an inadequate job in policing the industry to guarantee these new projects will be safe. This incident only serves to prove the critics are right.

Find out more about the Iberville Parish oil spill from the Advocate:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels 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:

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2017 – All Rights Reserved

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