Louisiana still one bad storm away from environmental disasters


One consequence of the recent 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was a chance to reflect just how lucky New Orleans and the surrounding parishes have been recently — at least when it comes to weather. Of course, no major hurricane has struck Louisiana in a while, and so far 2015 has been largely free of severe tropical weather. On the other hand, that may also provide a false sense of security. Our federal government has spent a small fortune — $14.6 billion, to be exact — on flood walls and other engineering feats promised to prevent Katrina-sized flooding in the future. But our Sportsman’s Paradise still must cope elsewhere with ever-shrinking wetlands, rising sea levels dues to climate change, and the many environmental scars that have been left by industry — especially Big Oil and Gas and our chemical plants.

The result is that many of our communities are still just one bad storm away from some sort of catastrophe. I’ve recently seen a couple of reminders of this . One comes from that small patch of south Louisiana that has already been rendered into near oblivion so far this decade — Bayou Corne, where faulty extraction practices of industrial brine at a salt dome to led to the massive sinkhole that essentially swallowed up the town. Now, that big hole is filled with foul, brackish water from deep underground, and it’s one more heavy storm away from a spill that will destroy our precious bayou:

NAPOLEONVILLE — In early June, after months of heavy rain, water inside the levees around the Bayou Corne sinkhole sat 7 inches from overtopping an overflow weir built into an earthen berm.

The levee was constructed in the first year after the sinkhole appeared in early August 2012 to prevent the hole’s most harmful contents, including briny water and, at the time, oily hydrocarbons, from spilling into and harming surrounding swamp and bayous.

On June 3, two days after the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season began, Texas Brine Co. sent the state Department of Environmental Quality an urgent request for an administrative order to discharge sinkhole water into the Bayou Corne waterway and possibly nearby Grand Bayou, as well.

There was a time when the sinkhole would suck down water into an underlying aquifer but as the sinkhole has settled, the path has sealed off, the company said, and water was now building up inside the berm.

The story notes that one more storm, and a breach of just three feet in the wall of the levee, would cause millions of gallons of this tainted, toxic water cocktail to flood the sensitive marshlands in the area. Officials in Assumption Parish and with the Texas Brine Co., which caused this mess in the first place, are looking at a range of options — controlled release, deep-well injection or industrial reuse, or expensive trucking — that go from bad to worse.

Meanwhile, scores of communities — some rural and some more populated — are arguably in worse shape than they were in 2005, when Katrina struck, when it comes to the risk posed by another major hurricane. A new series by the Climate Wire news service chronicles the crux of the problem:

The state is also planning a 50-year, $50 billion package split between flood protection and coastal restoration projects to slow down land loss that has worsened storm impacts, although some doubt that money will be allocated over time. A settlement with BP PLC over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill will also provide $18.7 billion to the Gulf Coast, with about $5 billion going to Louisiana for coastal restoration.

Parts of Louisiana are sinking, or subsiding, at more than 10 times the rate that the sea level is rising, leading to a higher net sea-level rise. Subsidence levels will stay about the same, but sea-level rise will significantly increase over the next 50 years, according to Alisha Renfro, a coastal scientist with the National Wildlife Federation.

The Mississippi River is not naturally rebuilding land by flushing sediment to the river’s mouth as it did before European settlers arrived and built protective levees.

The dredging of shipping routes — including MRGO and the Intracoastal Waterway — allowed destructive salt water into vulnerable marshes. Oil and gas companies have compounded the problem with canals, pipelines and thousands of wells.

Since the 1930s, the state has lost about 1,900 square miles of land in total, roughly the size of Delaware. And without those barrier wetlands, there is less of a buffer to slow down storm surge from hurricanes. Despite infrastructure and restoration projects, government officials say the region shouldn’t get too comfortable.

In other words, the BP settlement dollars are not nearly enough — something we all knew from Day One. Another key step in the recovery process — the lawsuit to force Big Oil to meet its obligation and pay for decades of environmental abuse to our wetlands — was killed by the reactionary Republican government in Baton Rouge, for now. In a short time, Louisiana will have new leadership, and it’s time for a new focus — on restoring wetlands, taking local hazards like Bayou Corne more seriously, and also dealing with climate change. The price of doing nothing is incalculable.

Read more about the new environmental dangers in Bayou Corne: http://theadvocate.com/news/13402558-123/assumption-jurors-say-no-to

Check out the Climate Wire report on the long-term risk to Louisiana from global warming: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060024453

Read more about a lifetime of fighting Big Oil on the Gulf Coast in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – 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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