Louisiana Isn’t Protecting Its Residents From Hazardous Chemical Spills, So It’s Time For Feds To Step In


Louisiana has richly deserved its nickname, “Sportsman’s Paradise.” At its best, the state’s bayous, teeming with wildlife, and the once-bountiful marine environment of the Gulf of Mexico truly have made the state a natural treasure. But Louisiana is also a state of contradiction. The landscape here is also dotted with a higher concentration of oil facilities and chemical plants than just about anywhere in the world. And so it’s a thin line between paradise and environmental disaster — as the world learned with the Deepwater Horizon fiasco offshore. But the sad reality is that residents on land often face danger on a routine basis from less publicized spills and leaks of hazardous substances from this cluster of chemical factories.

Given that, you might think that the state agency that regulates these facilities — the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ — would be at the very top of its game. Unfortunately, folks who live here know better. The DEQ has long been a toothless tiger when it comes to safeguarding Louisiana from toxic chemicals. At best, the agency has been underfunded and overwhelmed, and at its worst the DEQ has been in the back pocket of the industry it’s supposed to reign in.

Just for one example, the neighboring state of Texas receives $41 in regulatory fees for every ton of pollutants that’s released in the air. Louisiana gets just $14. And when Texas is treating its environment better than you are, you’ve got a big problem! Here in the Bayou State, we actually have a dedicated group of citizens who’ve come together to do some of the work — monitoring industry and keeping the public informed — that DEQ has proven incapable of performing. They call themselves the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

Recently, the Bucket Brigade has had it with the DEQ, and it’s easy to understand why. Check out these incidents they’ve chronicled:

* On March 22, a tank exploded at Westlake Chemical in Geismar, releasing vinyl chloride and chlorine into the atmosphere. Although the incident took place at 8:30 a.m., no air monitoring was undertaken until that afternoon, and residents of a close downwind community called Geismer were never informed.

* On May 8, the Shell Chemical facility in Norco was struck by lightning and burned for over 24 hours, releasing benzene, butadiene, carbon monoxide, ethylene, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxide, propylene, sulfur dioxide, xylene, and other volatile organic compounds. Amazingly, it took DEQ some 12 hours to arrive on the scene.

* On May 10, another episode at the Westlake Chemical plant — this time a power outage. Three workers are overcome by fumes and sent to the hospital after the release of vinyl chloride.

* On May 15, hydroflouric acid spewed from the Honeywell plant in Baton Rouge. There was no DEQ response — even though the agency headquarters is less than two miles away!

For the Bucket Brigade, this flurry of DEQ mishaps was the last straw. This week, the group wrote to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, begging that the feds take over this area of environmental protection from the overmatched DEQ. I had a two word reaction when I first learned of the letter: About time! This is not the first instance of the Bucket Brigade asking for EPA intervention, but their case is stronger than ever. They’ve done an amazing job in documenting how DEQ’s incompetence has exposed the public to toxic chemicals while hindering citizens’ right to know as well as efforts to monitor health in the affected areas. What’s more, EPA has performed audits that were highly critical of DEQ in the past, and so the feds are well aware of the problems.

So far, the EPA has been resistant to this new request, but it needs to reconsider. Let me add my voice to the chorus — it’s time for a federal takeover of DEQ. This sportsman’s paradise has been dumped on for too long.

You can read the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s letter to U.S. EPA officials here: http://www.labucketbrigade.org/article.php?id=1258

Here is news coverage from the Times-Picayune: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2012/05/watchdog_group_wants_feds_not.html

© Smith Stag, LLC 2012 – 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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