This article was produced in partnership with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
The notion that the natural environment should be regulated and protected by the government is a relatively modern one, often ascribed to the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book “Silent Spring.”
In 1970, President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, marking the beginning of the modern environmental apparatus. State environmental agencies began to pop up, and they were typically given the authority to enforce key federal laws, such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
Louisiana’s wake-up call came in 1978, when 19-year-old Kirtley Jackson died suddenly when he emptied his 18-wheeler into an unlicensed hazardous waste pit in Iberville Parish and was overcome by hydrogen sulfide fumes.
The incident helped spur the creation of Louisiana’s first environmental oversight agencies. In early 1984, the Department of Environmental Quality was established, replacing a hodgepodge of predecessor agencies. Four years later, Gov. Buddy Roemer took office and hired an idealistic environmental scientist, Paul Templet, as secretary of the DEQ. Templet brought in like-minded peers, doubled the agency’s ranks and brought a different attitude to regulation.
During Roemer’s tenure, pollution for the first time was treated as a critical problem facing Louisiana. The first annual national Toxics Release Inventory, which lists the quantity of toxic chemicals released by every major plant, had just been published, and many of the worst offenders were in Louisiana.
Urged on by Templet and Roemer, the Legislature passed a law requiring that toxic pollution statewide be cut in half over a decade, a goal Louisiana industry met and exceeded.
Perhaps most boldly, Templet pioneered a plan to tie tax incentives and other state enticements to a company’s environmental scorecard.
“Why is the state going to give a million-dollar-plus tax exemption to a company that has a six-figure order of violation against them?” Vicki Arroyo, who helped create the policy as Templet’s policy director and now runs the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown University, asked rhetorically in a recent interview.
Not surprisingly, industry was cool on Templet and, by extension, Roemer. No one disliked the governor and his DEQ secretary more than Jack Kent, president of Marine Shale Processors, a company based in St. Mary Parish that used an incinerator to turn dangerous industrial waste into a product used in roadbeds and other projects.
Alarmed by a cluster of rare brain cancers among local kids, Templet’s DEQ fined Marine Shale millions of dollars and pushed to revoke its permit in a series of pitched battles.
Kent had his revenge in the 1991 gubernatorial primary. He spent $400,000 on a series of ads attacking Roemer, who wound up finishing third behind the white supremacist David Duke and Edwin Edwards, who had by then served three terms as governor and been indicted once.
Louisiana has not seen a governor make environmental protection a priority since, and several have rowed in the opposite direction. After he beat Duke, for instance, Edwards replaced Templet with Kai Midboe, an attorney who had represented oil and gas interests, and who quickly eased off on some of Templet’s more aggressive policies — including the linkage between tax breaks and environmental performance.
“We don’t take positions based on politics; we take positions based on science,” Midboe told Chemical Week at the time. “We are trying to get away from the confrontational approach of the previous administration.”
In a recent interview, Edwards sounded a similar note. Industry, he said, “thought Roemer was not paying enough attention to them. He took too many steps without consulting them, and without trying to take a balanced approach.”
By contrast, he added: “I was always very close to the petrochemical industry because it’s very important to Louisiana. We had a quarter of a million jobs directly tied to the industry.”
Edwards’ unabashedly pro-industry successor, Gov. Mike Foster, was furious when the Japanese chemical manufacturer Shintech abandoned plans for a $700 million PVC plant in Convent, in St. James Parish. He successfully pushed for new restrictions on Tulane’s environmental law clinic, which had helped locals fight Shintech and other suitors. He also denounced the university and said the state should reconsider Tulane’s tax breaks.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Bobby Jindal, who took office in 2008, didn’t publicly signal plans to chart a new direction at the DEQ. He presented a reorganization plan that envisioned cutting 40 jobs at the agency, but that was far less than the roughly 300 he eventually trimmed.
Since Roemer’s abbreviated tenure, there hasn’t been a governor who has made environmental protection a central issue.
It’s not that it doesn’t matter to voters. A Pew Research Center poll in 2016 found that a slight majority of Louisianans believe stricter environmental regulation is worth the cost, though a substantial minority said environmental regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.
During the recently concluded campaign for governor, none of the leading candidates, including incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards, made the environment a focus — even though Louisiana is in the middle of an industrial building spree.
To the extent the industrial boom came up in the campaign, the question was whether Louisiana was sufficiently welcoming to big industry — not whether the state was holding polluters to account. Eddie Rispone, the Republican businessman who nearly beat Edwards, complained that Edwards’ curtailment of a generous tax break for industry was driving business away.
Louisiana’s constitutional requirement that environmental decisions take the economy into account is evidence of a long-standing mindset here.
Templet says that mindset can be changed, but it takes a leader willing to make environmental protection a focus.
“The staff at DEQ is capable and willing to lower pollution in Louisiana, but it requires that the DEQ leadership set that as a priority,” he said. “The language in the law balancing the environment and the economy is so vague and difficult to interpret that the DEQ can take almost any direction it wishes to go.
“There are plenty of people in other agencies working to give business an edge. The DEQ should be focusing on the environment.”