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I’ve Investigated Industrial Pollution for 35 Years. We’re Going Backwards.

Decades ago, Mark Schleifstein and his colleagues exposed environmental threats coming out of industrial plants all along the Louisiana section of the Mississippi River. A lot of those plants never went away, and even more are moving in.

Total Petrochemicals USA sits just inside the city limits of St. Gabriel, Louisiana. (David Grunfeld/The Times-Picayune and The Advocate)

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

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Louisiana’s 100-year romance with the petrochemical industry has come with an undeniably steep human price tag. Tens of thousands of people, living cheek-by-jowl with belching plants along the Mississippi River, are exposed to toxic chemicals at rates that are among the highest in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

And that exposure level will almost certainly increase dramatically over the next few years, as a multibillion-dollar boom brings dozens of new and expanded plants, many in the same communities that the EPA says already face the greatest health risks.

The threat of exposure to noxious chemicals — in the air, the land or the water — is nothing new in Louisiana. The state has ranked No. 2 in toxic emissions, behind Texas, just about every year since 1988, when the EPA began requiring industry to tally its pollution.

That year, the first in which the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory was published, Louisiana’s petrochemical plants acknowledged releasing nearly 1 billion pounds of hazardous wastes at their plant sites, or about 238 pounds for every person then in Louisiana. (For comparison’s sake, the average American ate 254 pounds of meat and poultry that year.)

The problem was significantly worse in communities in the state’s chemical corridor lining both sides of the Mississippi River between the Baton Rouge area and the river’s mouth, southeast of New Orleans. In Ascension Parish, for instance, 151.1 million pounds of wastes were reported, representing almost 2,600 pounds of wastes for each resident of the parish at the time.

In 1988, St. James Parish was by far the most polluted in Louisiana, with 335.8 million pounds of wastes disposed on plant sites. That represented an incredible 16,083 pounds of toxic wastes per person.

Those huge numbers prompted me and my colleagues at The Times-Picayune in the 1990s to launch a 15-month reporting effort aimed at explaining the dangers the emissions posed — and the belated efforts industry was making to clean up its very dirty act.

Our series, “Louisiana in Peril,” showed how companies disposed of millions of pounds of chemicals in their own backyards, and how those wastes were threatening freshwater aquifers across the state. Other stories documented how industry left untold tons of toxic wastes at abandoned dumps across the state.

The abandoned dumps posed risks to groundwater and to surface waters that might be polluted from rainwater runoff. But they also posed health threats to nearby residents who might wander into sites not protected by fencing, as well as to wildlife.

The reports were peppered with stories of individuals living near plants who complained of exposure to airborne toxic chemicals; others whose land was being bought by chemical plants trying to expand their borders; and still others who feared heavy industry was contaminating their drinking water.

St. James Parish residents, pastors and environmental groups protest the Mosaic fertilizer plant in 2017. In 1988, St. James was one of Louisiana’s most polluted parishes. (Brett Duke/The Times-Picayune and The Advocate)

Some companies didn’t like seeing their names at the top of the emissions list. And others became aware for the first time that their plants were disposing of product that could be sold rather than dumped. The subsequent years saw dramatic cuts in emissions from industry — including a 99% drop in St. James.

By 2002, 14 years after the first pollution inventory, Louisiana chemical plants had reduced their onsite emissions by 87% — a massive improvement, but one that still left Louisiana No. 2 among the most-polluting states. Just as Louisiana improved, other states did too.

In the years since, the efforts by Louisiana polluters to reduce their wastes have stalled, according to their own data.

In 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, releases of toxic chemicals were on the rise again in Louisiana — up 17% from the low point they hit in 2009. The uptick is a function of a new industrial boom across the state — evidenced by announcements of dozens of expansions and new plants about to begin construction.

The developments are mostly being met not with concern, but with euphoria.

When Methanex in July announced plans to build a third methanol plant in Ascension Parish, at a cost of $1.4 billion, Gov. John Bel Edwards crowed about the firm’s “very positive impact” on the local and state economy.

“We welcome the company’s third production plant in Geismar, where our advanced infrastructure has proven time and again to be a competitive advantage for Louisiana,” Edwards said in a prepared statement.

Iberville Parish remains a hotspot, with emissions rising to 8.2 million pounds, or 248.6 pounds per person. That’s roughly nine times the state average. Emissions there are nearly as high as they were 31 years ago, when the reduction effort began.

My colleagues at The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, as well as our partners at ProPublica, today are beginning an ambitious series of stories about this boom and its effects on our state. They’ve found that some of the areas already at greatest risk from toxic emissions will bear the brunt of the new industrial expansion.

The recent boom has been spurred by cheap natural gas and oil produced by fracking. The low-cost hydrocarbons are used to make chemicals, plastics and fuels; they also have spurred the development of new liquefied natural gas and crude oil export terminals on the lower Mississippi and Calcasieu rivers.

The Denka Performance Elastomer plant, next to the Mississippi River in LaPlace, Louisiana. The Denka plant is one of many in the area known as “Cancer Alley.” (Brett Duke/The Times-Picayune and The Advocate)

Most of the new plants and expansions are taking advantage of liberal breaks available through an extremely generous property tax exemption program overseen by the state — among other enticements.

For a reporter who has been watching Louisiana industry for nearly three decades, it feels like we’re going backward.

By the time of our groundbreaking 1991 series, most of America was 20 years into an environmental revolution, spurred by the creation of the EPA in 1970 and the adoption of a series of more stringent federal regulatory systems for land, air and water pollution.

But the revolution was slow to arrive in the Sportsman’s Paradise.

The result was the continuation here of outdated and unhealthy practices: dumping wastes in unlined pits in chemical facility “backyards” or at offsite dumps; the disposal of untreated wastes into nearby ditches, bayous and rivers; the disposal of excess product into underground wells; and the release of millions of pounds of wastes into the air.

To explain what was happening in Louisiana back then, we toured 14 chemical plants along the Mississippi and three more in the Lake Charles area. To prepare, we spent many days rummaging through thousands of pages of documents at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality that explained permits, memorialized inspections and noted rules violations.

We might have been the first people to look through those files — including the people who worked at DEQ.

“We’ve got to do that one day,” the head of the department’s hazardous wastes division mused aloud, as he watched us work.

Back then, American Cyanamid in Waggaman — now Cornerstone Chemicals — had been disposing of more than 11 million pounds of the noxious solvent acetonitrile down injection wells. That made the firm the No. 2 discharger of toxic chemicals in America, and it made Jefferson Parish the most-polluting county in the nation.

Improvements to Cornerstone’s manufacturing practices over the next few years eliminated most of the waste, and the company fell off the top of the list.

Today, Cornerstone is back in the news, battling Jefferson Parish in state court after the Parish Council rescinded a permit for a $100 million addition to a hydrogen cyanide plant. Vocal opposition had emerged from the plant’s neighbors — in part because of Cornerstone’s long history of accidents and accidental releases, including an April 2019 leak of 3,600 gallons of sulfuric acid and a May 2017 release of 234 pounds of cyanide into the river.

We found other major problems in 1991, which we raised during our tours. At the Borden Chemicals and Plastics plant in Geismar, which produced vinyl chloride, ammonia and polyvinyl chloride, officials downplayed 29 air permit violations and 32 water permit violations over four years as “routine exceedances.”

Explaining why the company had paid $1.4 million in fines to the federal and state governments for routine illegal discharges of cancer-causing vinyl chloride, a plant manager was surprisingly candid: “The amounts … were minuscule compared with our business objectives,” he said.

A few years later, the company paid $7 million to settle a civil suit filed by the U.S. Justice Department over its release of carcinogens into the groundwater. Borden also agreed to spend as much as $33 million on cleanup.

The trouble has continued under the facility’s new owner, Westlake Chemical Corp. The plant was the source of fires in 2012 and 2014. And in 2018, DEQ confirmed nine separate accidental releases of chemicals — including hydrochloric acid, vinyl chloride, ethylene, chloroform, benzene and other toxic chemicals — during the previous 14 months.

In a June filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Westlake said it had negotiated a $162,500 settlement of state air pollution violations at both its Geismar and Lake Charles facilities, but the settlement agreement was still pending approval by DEQ and the Louisiana attorney general.

Finally, and most egregiously, we found in 1991 that more than 46,000 tons of hazardous wastes had been dumped in open pits at the huge Dow Chemical campus in Iberville Parish over the previous 30 years. The material had seeped into two aquifers that officials said could in turn contaminate the area’s drinking water.

The company had installed more than 200 wells to pull the chemicals to the surface, attempting to avoid further polluting the aquifer. When we asked a manager how long the chemicals would be there, his answer was blunt: “Forever.”

In 1997, residents at a trailer park near the town of Plaquemine were notified that their water was contaminated by small amounts of vinyl chloride, sparking a yearslong investigation into whether Dow’s wastes were the source. They were. In 2011, Dow entered into a monitoring agreement with the EPA and DEQ aimed at assuring that vinyl chloride from their site did not reach the well used as the city’s water source.

In 2013, as part of a suit filed by the residents of the trailer park, a state judge found the company partly responsible for the vinyl chloride found in their water supply, well outside the plant fence line.

Dow’s plan for assuring it doesn’t foul the town’s wells calls for what it and DEQ have termed “monitored natural attenuation” — essentially, waiting for the material to naturally break down as it moves underground until it loses its toxicity. Today, Dow insists that plan is working, despite a report it filed with DEQ this year still showing high levels of vinyl chloride in wells near Plaquemine.

The Dow Chemical plant near the town of Plaquemine. (Brett Duke/The Times-Picayune and The Advocate)

Almost 30 years after we started work on “Louisiana in Peril,” it seems overdue to take a renewed look at the state’s petrochemical industry and the regulators that oversee it to determine whether they are adequately addressing health and safety amid the boom.

Among the questions that need to be asked: What efforts are being made to reduce the use of flaring — the burning of chemicals in an open flame — to dispose of them during startup, shutdown and emergencies?

What’s the status of those legacy backyard cleanup efforts, and are there any new major efforts underway?

What are industries in communities that the EPA has identified as potential trouble spots doing to reduce risk?

Are Louisiana’s petrochemical plants coming up with new methods for reducing emissions, and how effective are they?

What are the successes and failures of the EPA, DEQ and other federal, state and local agencies in reducing emissions and reducing health risks?

We plan to answer those questions in the coming months.

In places like Iberville Parish — where Dow Chemical Plaquemine recently dedicated $2 billion in expansions to polyolefin and ethylene manufacturing facilities, and Shintech Louisiana announced it would complete a $1.5 billion expansion to manufacture chlor alkali and vinyl chloride monomer by late 2020 — assuring that our watchdogs are on top of things is vital.

Mark Schleifstein is an environment reporter for The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MSchleifstein.

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