New Orleans A tip from a friend sent me to a seat on the back row of a lecture hall at the Tulane Law School to listen to a star-studded panel assembled on the topic of “Fighting the Polluter’s Paradise: Taking Back Louisiana’s Air.” ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, and a number of our partners have been active in working with families in St. James and St. John Parishes between New Orleans and Baton Rouge who are increasingly struggling to deal with the impacts of oil and chemical plants, cheek to jowl, running up the Mississippi. The health risks from emissions and the environmental racism involved in many communities have been issues in the recent local and state elections, and created headline stories in the local paper.
The session began with a presentation from ProPublica of data crunching they had pulled from various sites and color coded on the seven-parish map running between the two major Louisiana cities along the river showing the accumulated impact of carcinogenic chemicals being emitted by the plants. The slides were vaguer than the newspaper recent edition, but the point was unmistakable. The communities were being poisoned.
Mark Schleifstein, the environmental report for the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate gave a straightforward, just-the-facts-ma’am overview of the recent decades. He felt the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had a better record than most of the audience would think and deserved some credit for a reduction in emissions in the later decades of the 20th century, thanks to being forced to reveal the chemicals they were putting in the air. In the more recent decade, the rate of emissions has soared by 17% though.
Wilma Subra, a Lafayette-based microbiologist who has been an advocate in this area for years, was the star of the show. She noted that part of the increase came from companies getting lauded for reducing emissions and DEQ never adjusting their permits, so they decided it was OK for them to increase emissions up to the allowable levels of their permits. Subra almost shared the fact that companies know where there are air monitors for emissions and that DEQ only tracks them every six days, so if they have a repair or changeover and know they are going to release likely carcinogenic emissions, they’ll simply do so in the five day window so the pollution won’t show up and be identified to their plant.
Of course, as St. James resident Eve Butler pointed out, citizens can smell the emissions, but calling DEQ is often fruitless because it takes three days for them to show up to investigate and by that time, the telltale smell is gone. She advises a call to the hotline run by the Coast Guard on the Mississippi River, because at least it leapfrogs over the local system.
Amazingly, one panelist after another mentioned that there are no air monitors in either St. James or St. John Parishes, so plant approvals are almost routine, including the huge pending Formosa chemical plant, because the permits are being issued without any data about existing emissions in the area. That’s a killer for sure and a daily tragedy for residents.
An outreach specialist for Tulane’s Environmental Law Center argued for better data and information for residents. The reporter suggested calls to the governor’s office to see if he’s ready to fulfill promises to do more studies. Ok, but listening from the back of the room, it seemed like the only thing that might work would be building a grassroots organization and peoples’ movement demanding protection for the health of families and then demanding tight-as-a-drum controls on existing plant polluters, a moratorium on any new plants, or closure of existing bad actors until people come first, rather than the polluters.