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Air Quality Regulators in “Cancer Alley” Have Fallen Dangerously Behind

An audit found that the time it takes the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to issue penalties to polluters has doubled. Some companies that have been known to violate air quality rules were able to keep at it for years, or even decades.

A plant looms behind apartments in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, which lies in “Cancer Alley,” the stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge where a high concentration of petrochemical facilities contributes to some of the nation’s worst toxic air pollution. (Sophia Germer/The Times-Picayune and The Advocate)

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This article was produced in partnership with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, which was a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network in 2019.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality needs to do a better job of identifying industrial polluters that don't properly report emission violations, and it should enforce those violations more aggressively, according to a new management audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office.

Many of the audit's findings tracked those of a 2019 investigation by The Times-Picayune, The Advocate and ProPublica.

The newsrooms showed how emissions of cancer-causing chemicals from clusters of large industrial facilities in seven parishes along the lower Mississippi River combine to increase overall air toxicity for nearby residents. Overall, the analysis found that a crush of new industrial plants will increase the levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the air of predominantly Black and poor communities.

The auditor’s report found that the time it took for the LDEQ to issue enforcement actions after a known violation more than doubled between fiscal year 2015 and 2019, from nearly 10 months to nearly 20 months.

Auditors also found it could take as long as nine years from the time a company was cited for violating emission standards before it was ordered to pay a fine or was required by a settlement to pay for a mitigation project.

“Overall, we found DEQ could strengthen its monitoring and enforcement processes by identifying violations and issuing enforcement actions in a timelier manner,” Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said in a cover letter to the report.

“As a result, there is a risk that facilities may have violations that remain uncorrected for years,” an audit summary said. “Best practices state that effective enforcement includes swift and predictable responses to violations.”

The DEQ also needs to do a better job identifying facilities that fail to submit self-monitoring reports on emissions, and to speed its review of the reports for violations, the audit said. The auditors also found the agency doesn’t adequately track the penalties it has assessed or whether the penalties were paid.

Part of the agency’s enforcement problems can be traced to DEQ’s reduced number of employees, employees’ high workloads, frequent staff turnover “and ineffective data systems,” the audit said.

“Louisiana has the highest toxic air emissions per square mile of any state,” the report said, based on data gathered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2018 Toxics Release Inventory, a self-reported measurement of toxic chemicals released into the air, land or water by individual facilities.

Based on TRI data, the audit said, in 2018, Louisiana had an average of 1,239 pounds of toxic air releases per square mile. Ohio, the state with the second-highest air emissions rate, averaged 899 pounds per square mile.

The audit also pointed to the EPA’s most recent National Air Toxics Assessment, from 2014, which identified a number of Louisiana locations where emissions from nearby manufacturing facilities are linked to a high potential for cancer risks or high respiratory illness hazards.

But the audit also pointed out that its criticisms come amid better news about some forms of air pollution in Louisiana. It pointed out that the EPA’s AirNow website’s daily reports of air pollution issues — mostly ground-level ozone and particulate matter — indicated that “good air quality” days in Louisiana had increased by 21% between 2008 and 2018, and the number of “unhealthy days for sensitive groups” had decreased by 71%.

The audit noted that several areas of the state “are highly industrialized and have high concentrations of air pollution” involving chemicals not measured by AirNow. The EPA does not regularly monitor cancer-causing chemicals such as chlorine and ethylene oxide, which the 2019 investigation by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate highlighted as being elevated in certain parts of Louisiana’s industrial river corridor.

The report included 11 major recommendations. A response included in the report from DEQ Secretary Chuck Carr Brown said the agency generally agreed with 10 of them.

The only one they’re at odds over is a recommendation that DEQ inspectors take photographs or gather other hard evidence that will show inspections actually take place. Brown pointed out that inspectors fill out a field interview form during the inspection that is left at the facility, and that copies are signed by both the inspectors and facility employees.

But the audit report pointed out that the DEQ had to notify both the state legislative auditor and the EPA’s inspector general that a former employee had falsified at least three compliance investigations.

The facilities involved were not named in the report.

A spokesman for the DEQ said the skipped inspections were the fault of an employee who left the agency before they were discovered.

In his response included in the audit, Brown said DEQ is developing its own software to allow the staff to better track violations. When complete, it should also issue notices to staffers if reports aren’t submitted on time or if a new violation shows up in a company’s records. Brown did not say when the software would be ready.

Other findings of the audit include:

  • The DEQ should vary when it inspects facilities so the inspections are less predictable. DEQ agreed.
  • DEQ should develop goals for how long it should take to issue enforcement actions and track their progress. Again, DEQ agreed.
  • DEQ should establish a process requiring facilities to submit settlement offers within a certain time frame, such as six months, and draft a penalty amount for those who do not comply. This recommendation is aimed at shortening the time between when a company is notified of a penalty and when the agency issues a final penalty decision, a span that now often lasts several years. DEQ mostly agreed, but it pointed out that compliance orders and notices of potential penalty are subject to appeal, which can delay the process.
  • DEQ management should determine whether staffing levels are sufficient and, if not, should request funding for additional staff. DEQ agreed to consider moving staff within its divisions, but said requesting more money was likely to be a problem.

The Legislative Auditor’s office has produced a podcast explaining the highlights of its report for members of the Legislature.

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