Louisiana DEQ bungles a toxic nightmare from Hurricane Isaac


In recent months, I’ve joined with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and others in calling for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, to be stripped of its powers and for the federal Environmental Protection Administration, or EPA, to take over. This is not an idea that I toss around lightly. Time and time again, Louisiana’s DEQ has shown that it’s simply unable or unwilling to do its job: Keeping the state’s residents safe from pollution.

Now, a new, harrowing tale of DEQ bungling has emerged amid the floodwaters of Hurricane Isaac. As the deadly storm lashed Louisiana –the state with a higher concentration of chemical plants and oil refineries than anywhere else — the agency failed to act and once again failed to warn residents of a toxic catastrophe in the downriver town of Braithwaite, the community that was ravaged by Isaac’s floodwaters.

 More than 191,000 gallons of toxic chemicals may have been released from the Stolthaven New Orleans petroleum and chemical storage and transfer terminal in Braithwaite during Hurricane Isaac, according to a company report filed Tuesday with the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center. That’s just one day after the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality assured the public that monitoring at the facility detected no offsite contamination.

Today, a DEQ spokesman said Stolthaven’s report “lists the worst-case scenario for potential releases which includes tank contents that could not be accurately measured.”

This is stunning, even with the low bar previously established by the DEQ. One day that agency is assuring the public that there’s no problem at the site, and the next day they’re admitting there’s a major spill that started two weeks ago but even now they’re still not on top of the full extent. As the article notes:  “A flyover of the area by a Times-Picayune photographer this morning showed a significant quantity of liquid material adjacent to one of the tanks, with nearby workers dressed in clothing designed to protect them from hazardous chemicals.”

Once again, the citizen activists of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade are more on top of things than the state: 

“As of a few days ago, DEQ was offering assurances of safety to people, and this form exposes how lackadaisical they are about protecting us, and they should be fired,” said Anne Rolfes, the group’s executive director. “They were saying publicly that it was safe and nothing was released into the greater community, but it was clear from just driving through the neighborhood that something was wrong. They need to be honest and not just give kneejerk reassurances.”

Rolfes said the report also shows that Stolthaven did not do enough to prepare for an expected flooding of its facility during the storm. “They’ll say that Isaac was an act of God, but they’re supposed to be prepared to withstand floodwaters,” she said.

This would be appalling if it were only a one-time event — but regular readers of this blog know that this kind of nonsense happens with the DEQ on a regular basis.  Most recently, we’ve seen DEQ ignore tremors, past reports, and other warnings before a giant sinkhole threatened the small town of Bayou Corne. Back in July, the agency failed to tell nearby residents about a massive spill of carcinogens at the Exxon plant in Baton Rouge. This all came after those of us who care about preserving the environment in Louisiana pleaded with the feds for an EPA takeover.

This latest news is terrible news for the beleaguered residents of Braithwaite. But as the floodwaters finally recede, maybe one positive will come out of this Hurricane Isaac horror story. Maybe this will finally be the last straw to convince the feds that Louisiana simply isn’t up to the job.

You can read the Times-Picayune’s coverage of the toxic spill in Braithwaite at: http://blog.nola.com/hurricane_impact/print.html?entry=/2012/09/stolthaven_braithwaite_termina.html

Check out my Aug. 13 post about DEQ;s incompetence at the Bayou Corne sinkhole: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/incompetent-louisiana-regulators-knew-of-risk-at-sinkhole-site-since-early-2011/

Read my July 23 post about DEQ’s dishonesty in a Baton Rouge chemical spill here: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/pollution-fighters-catch-exxonmobil-in-a-baton-rouge-big-lie/

Here is my May 21 post calling for an EPA takever of DEQ: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/louisiana-isnt-protecting-its-residents-from-hazardous-chemical-spills-so-its-time-for-feds-to-step-in/

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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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