Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ is getting more toxic


In a perfect world, humankind would be winning the war against toxic air pollution. After all, it’s been almost 44 years since the first Earth Day and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That was supposed to mark the end of an era when smokestacks belching toxins into the American sky was considered a sign of economic health and not an indicator of cancer and other looming diseases. Indeed, technology has created an arsenal of state-of-the-art pollution control devices that weren’t available in the mid-20th Century.

So why does it seem as if so little progress has been made. My home state of Louisiana has the second-highest cancer rate in the nation, and many experts say that a chunk of the blame for that belongs to the place that locals know as “Cancer Alley,” the band of chemical plants and refineries that line the Mississippi River and nearby communities from Baton Rouge all the way down to New Orleans.

Now, the numbers for 2012 are in, and it was not a good year for Cancer Alley. The surge in U.S. oil and gas production to the highest levels in a generation have placed a lot of pressure on Louisiana’s aging, rusty faciliities, and they have not responded well. You may recall, 2012 was the year that Hurricane Isaac battered the Gulf region, and that exposed some of the flaws, as well as the age, of the infrastructure in Cancer Alley.

This week, the folks at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, who’ve done yeoman’s work in keeping tabs of pollution across the state and informing everyday people about the risks, issued their annual report about toxic air pollution, and the news is not good:

(New Orleans) Louisiana’s 17 refineries reported 327 accidents in 2012, an average of six per week. The accidents released over two million pounds of air pollution and exceeded 12 million gallons of water pollution. “Year after year our state gets the pollution and the oil industry gets the profit,” said Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB). “We have to work together to change this, so we are calling on refinery workers and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) employees to tell what they know. The rank and file are doing a good job, it’s the management that protects the oil industry’s interests,” she continued. The report includes ways for workers to report anonymously via iwitnesspollution.org

The numbers are compiled by LABB staff from refineries’ reports to the state DEQ. This methodology for data management has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. The report, entitled Mission: Zero Accidents. Why Cooperation to Reduce Accidents at Louisiana Refineries is Needed Now, has the objective to end refinery accidents.

At issue with the accident reports from 2012 (the most recent data available) is underreporting by refineries as well as sloppy reporting. Refineries provided no information about 11% of their accidents. In Shreveport, 12% of Calumet Refining’s reports were not filed until community members called the state agency and forced the reporting.

“It is essential that refinery incidents get reported because that is one of the first steps in protecting the employees and the community,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers. Accident emissions have increased over the last several years.

The Bucket Brigade has done the math — these facilities have had a whopping 3,339 accidents since 2005. Among the chemicals released in mass quantities are benzene, a major carcinogen, as well as sulfur dioxide, which is closely linked to asthma and other respiratory problems. The problems that the activists have identified are closely interwined. There are far too many industrial accidents, and the ones that occur are not being properly reported. One feeds on the other.

This week’s report encourages whistleblowers from the industry, or even from the regulatory agencies, to make pollution reports (you can email them here), and I certainly would encourage that as well. What would be even better, though, would be for Big Oil — reaping tens of billions of dollars in profits every quarter — to reinvest just the small percent of those profits that would make those plants modern and less accident prone in the first place.

Read the new Louisiana Bucket Brigade report at: http://www.labucketbrigade.org/article.php?id=1572

Whistleblowers can report accidents or problems directly by emailing: report@labucketbrigade.org

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – 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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