Around 955,000 Louisiana citizens are currently at risk of coastal flooding, with that number expected to rise by an additional 262,000 by 2050 due to climate change. In spite of these numbers, a recent report released by the Environmental Integrity Project shows that Louisiana is among the top 10 states in the U.S. making deep cuts to their environmental enforcement agencies.
According to the EIP report, titled The Thin Green Line: Cuts in State Pollution Control Agencies Threaten Public Health, Louisiana cut their environmental agency funding by 35 percent, from $164 million (equivalent to $192 million when adjusted for inflation) in 2008 to only $125 million in 2018. In addition, Louisiana also made deep cuts to its Department of Environmental Quality budget, while simultaneously approving hundreds of new air pollution control permits.
Since 2012, Louisiana has approved 41 new petrochemical projects to build or expand new industrial facilities, including liquefied natural gas export terminals, chemical plants, refineries, and fertilizer factories. Several more are awaiting permit approval. Each application is several thousand pages long and should undergo a careful review process to determine the impact that each project will have on air and water quality. However, Louisiana cut pollution control staffing by 30 percent over the last 10 years.
That 30 percent staffing cut is the fourth-largest cut in the nation, behind Illinois, North Carolina, and Arizona. Since 2008, Louisiana has cut 296 full-time equivalent staffing positions at environmental agencies according to state budget documents.
“The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality needs two things: more money in its budget and the will to enforce the law,” said Anne Rolfes, Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental organization. “Demoralized employees lack the proper funding to do their jobs, and they are vulnerable to industry pressure. The petrochemical industry will not miss an opportunity in Louisiana to exploit a weakened enforcement agency, and we in Louisiana suffer because of it.”
As the fourth-largest natural gas producer and the ninth-largest crude oil producer in the U.S., the petrochemical industry is particularly important to Louisiana. Currently, there are 7,388 oil and gas drilling facilities in the state. However, the lack of pollution control enforcement is posing a significant risk to the state’s residents. The EIP found that more than a third of the state’s petrochemical plants have been continuously noncompliant with pollution control laws over the past three years. Specific offenders named in the report included the Phillips 66 Lake Charles refinery, the ExxonMobile Baton Rouge chemical plant, and Dow Chemical’s Louisiana Operations.
Additionally, the EIP reports that the state has 72 industrial facilities with what the Environmental Protection Agency considers “high priority” Clean Air Act violations and 49 current violations of hazardous waste laws. Twelve of Louisiana’s major wastewater plants and industrial facilities have been “in significant noncompliance” with the Clean Water Act, with the Baton Rouge and Springhill sewage treatment plants in continuous violation for three years.
In November, the EPA proposed new Clean Air Act rules that would govern the emissions of ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic chemical released by 13 plants in Louisiana currently, 11 of which are in the area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley.” The proposed Formosa Chemicals plant in St. James Parish would release up to 7.7 tons of the carcinogen each year.
Unfortunately, the new EPA rules would only affect portions of those 13 plants – and only five of the new Formosa plant’s 16 facilities scheduled to be operational by 2022. Even if they did, the EIP report suggests that it is unlikely that Louisiana would have the budget or the staff to enforce the new rules once they are in effect.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in addition to being a carcinogen, chronic exposure to ethylene oxide can cause respiratory problems, headache, nausea, birth defects, brain damage, and allergic reactions. The National Air Toxics Assessment report issued by OSHA in 2018 found a census tract in St. Charles Parish near the Dow Union Carbide plant – another large ethylene oxide emitter – had the highest risk of the nation for lymphoid or breast cancers.
In spite of this, state officials continue to cut the budget and staffing for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
“A state agency without sufficient funding emboldens an already abusive industry,” said Rolfes.
Jenn Bentley is a freelance writer whose work has also been featured in publications such as Wander No More, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_