How Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ is harming the earth’s ozone layer


With the 2020s underway, there’s been a renewed focus on the problem of climate change. The horrific bushfires in Australia have been a reminder that while the world’s leaders did too little over the course of the last decade, global warming has gone from a futuristic threat to a real-time crisis. Many wonder if modern society can make the kind of sacrifices that will be needed to reduce our use of fossil fuels and curb pollution.

But the reality is that — after climate denial and business-friendly anti-environmentalism became the official U.S. government policy over the course of the 2010s — we’ve also been going backwards on some other problems we thought had been solved.

Do you remember “the ozone hole”?

Long before climate change became the No. 1 concern of environmentalists, during the 1970s and 1980s, experts were most worried that air pollution from some of the prime ingredients in omnipresent aerosol sprays, as well as common coolants, were destroying the atmospheric layer that protects humans and other life on earth from the sun’s most harmful rays.

But unlike global warming, the world acted on “the ozone hole”….or so it seemed. A disturbing new report from The Intercept says that — despite a worldwide ban on key ozone-depleting chemicals that was achieved in 1989 — such pollution is on the rise again.

And here’s a plot twist that won’t come as surprise to people living in Louisiana, where environmental enforcement has lagged for decades: Two of the worst offending plants in the United States are located side-by-side in the heart of “Cancer Alley,” the stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that’s lined with petrochemical plants and produces some of the most polluted air in America.

Both plants are located in Geismar, Louisiana – a small town that’s roughly the mid-point of the 60-mile industrial corridor.

An analysis of data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that between 2012 and 2018, American companies released some 1.3 million pounds of an ozone-depleting chemical called carbon tetrachloride, which is supposed to be heavily regulated under the so-called Montreal Protocol from more than 30 years ago.

The study found that two of the three plants releasing the most of that pollution are located in tiny Geismar. One of them is a facility run by a joint venture called Rubicon LLC that makes chemicals that are used in polyurethane manufacturing for products such as insulation, furniture, plastic, shoes and pharmaceuticals. The site was dinged in the late 1990s by Time Magazine as one of the worst chemical polluters among the state’s many plants.

“We’re currently operating under our air permits under the EPA and the Department of Environmental Quality of the state of Louisiana and we’re constantly working year on year to reduce our emissions and be good environmental stewards,” the general manager of the Rubicon plant told The Intercept. Meanwhile, the plant’s owners are weighing a $270 million expansion to make even more polyurethane products.

The other plant in Geismar causing ozone-damaging pollution is Occidental Chemical, which manufactures a variety of coolants.

The ability of these plants to emit large amounts of carbon tetrachloride is one of several loopholes that experts say is stalling the recovery of the earth’s ozone layer, which had been gradually recovering since pollution controls were imposed beginning in the 1980s. The latest research says the complete solution to the “ozone hole” problem could now be delayed for more than 30 years because of higher-than-expected emissions, in the United States and elsewhere.

The ozone report is troubling, as is the notion that — as stated by the Rubicon plant manager — this pollution is considered legal and within acceptable levels by state and federal regulators. The reason that “Cancer Alley” became the environmental nightmare it is now has come through lax regulations and standards.

The fact that both Geismar plans are either undergoing or considering major expansions — as a time when large plastics companies from China and elsewhere are also proposing massive brand-new plants for southern Louisiana — is alarming. These modern facilities are heavily automated and, as a result, these expansions tend to create only a handful of new jobs — but they are apparently not so modern as to contain their pollution.

We need to be taking aggressive action to roll back pollution — especially the greenhouse gases that cause climate change — rather than adding to it. Right now, the Republican administration in Washington is moving in the wrong direction, while the Democratic regime in Baton Rouge is treading water. It’s a disgrace that we’re now dealing with the problems like ozone that were supposed to be solved many years ago.

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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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