Is what we gain worth the peril of ecological disaster?
Contaminated wells; polluted rivers; toxic clouds: these are the risks of living in a chemical world. Is what we gain - the promise of a better life through improved consumer products, medical advances and good paying jobs – worth the peril of ecological disaster? Explore “The Environment” on this month’s Louisiana Public Square .
Panelists include Louisiana Chemical Association President Dan Borne, DEQ Deputy Secretary Karen Gautreaux, and the Executive Director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network Marylee Orr.
LPB President Beth Courtney hosts the program with former CNN anchor and reporter Charles Zewe.
The Conservation Movement in America was 5 decades old when, in the early years of the 20th century, Louisiana’s natural treasures were first exploited by large manufacturing interests. But in an age of rapid expansion, little government oversight and a seemingly endless supply of resources, there was little thought of finding a balance between the costs and the benefits of large-scale development.
Industrial exploitation of Louisiana’s natural resources began with mechanized extraction of entire forests of cypress and giant longleaf pine. By the 1930s, only 3% of remaining longleaf pine forests in Louisiana existed as uncut, old-growth stands. Usually, no thought was given to re-forestation. More than a century after cypress trees were clear cut in the Lake Pontchartrain area, treeless marsh has replaced lush forests.
Around 1916, when large natural gas deposits were discovered in northeast Louisiana, carbon black manufacturing plants descended on Monroe. The technology used at the time allowed about 97% of the natural gas to dissipate in the atmosphere. In the years between 1916 and 1930, an estimated one trillion cubic feet of natural gas was wasted in this manner.
From the late 1940s through the 1960s, the oil and gas industry experienced tremendous growth in Louisiana. Coastal and off-shore exploration required con-struction and servicing of drilling platforms in and around marshlands and barrier islands. To move workers and supplies to and from the wellheads more easily, an ever expanding network of canals and channels were cut through these delicate ecosystems, creating major changes in the hydrology and salinity of vast areas along the coast. Although natural subsidence and the impoundment of alluvial water from the Mississippi River both play a part, much of the land loss in south Louisiana can be traced to the legacy of petroleum industry construction and excavation activities.
The consequences of un-checked development will be with us for a long time, but no society can prosper without sustainable economic growth. In the middle of the 20th century, the state began pinning much of its hopes for prosperity on the extraction and processing of petrochemical products. Though no longer as dominant as it once was in Louisiana’s overall economic mix, the petrochemical industry is still a powerful force in the state’s manufacturing sector.
We live in a chemical world. Virtually everything we touch on a daily basis has some components made from industrial chemical processes. Our phones; our furniture, the food containers in our refrigerators, all have plastic components. That’s good news for Louisiana’s petrochemical industry. Clustered along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and in the Lake Charles area, hundreds of plants produce much of the nation’s supply of poly-vinyl chloride and other chemicals. They also refine huge quantities of crude oil into gasoline and other fuels.
These capital intensive facilities were heavily recruited by state and local governments as a means to stimulate economic development. Companies –virtually all headquartered outside of Louisiana – were attracted by river access, good water and road transportation and access to feedstock – the base chemicals used in various manufacturing processes.
But the economic benefits – including about 23 thousand high-paying manufacturing jobs – come at a cost. In 2002, Louisiana plants released more than 126 million pounds of hazardous substances into our air, ground and water. Environmentalists say so much toxic material is unhealthy, and point to emissions of large quantities of known carcinogens, such as vinyl chloride. But industry supporters assert that Louisiana spends more per capita on pollution control than any other state. They also claim that the millions of dollars spent by industry to reduce toxic waste products have reduced emissions by as much as 96 percent since 1987. Exposure levels, industry says, are well below what federal standards say are harmful.
Governmental enticements are used to attract chemical companies to Louisiana. These include generous property tax exemptions lasting up to ten years. Proponents of the tax deferment program and other financial incentives [which can include rebates for local and state sales taxes paid during construction, infrastructure improvements and state-subsidized worker training] contend such perks are needed to attract new businesses, or to help retain existing ones in the state. Subsidies for a billion dollar plant easily could top one hundred million dollars.
Some observers criticize tax incentives that seem to favor capital intensive industries – such as chemical plants and oil refineries –which employ relatively few workers and have the highest ratio of pollution per job in the nation [896 pounds per job – three times higher than Texas, which is the largest producer of chemicals in the US]. They also point to higher health and safety risks, which include not only the production of hazardous materials, but also the transportation, storage and disposal of toxic substances used to create the end-products. Critics also raise concerns about intangible costs, such as quality of life issues, and negative perceptions connected with living in the section of south Louisiana that some call the “Chemical Corridor” and others have nicknamed “Cancer Alley”. The latter epithet, whether true or not, may have the effect of making the recruitment of new businesses to Louisiana harder.
Industry defenders say plants provide huge economic benefits, not only in multi-million dollar payrolls, but in the “multiplier effect” that ripples throughout the economy. Petrochemical companies pay millions of dollars in taxes to state and parish governments each year. In some cases, they are a primary source of taxes in a parish. The industry has long derided what it calls “the Cancer Alley myth” and can point to studies that support its position. Louisiana State Medical Director, Dr. Jimmy Guidry, says, “What we’ve looked at is that the incidence of cancer in Louisiana is not any higher than any other part of the country. In fact, we’re in the middle of the pack.” Despite anecdotal claims by residents of alarmingly high numbers of cancer cases, data collected by the Louisiana Tumor Registry have consistently shown no higher risk of cancer in the so-called Cancer Alley, formed by petrochemical plants operating along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Some researchers have criticized the Tumor Registry’s use of mathematical models that study only populations of 10,000 or more, which are much larger than the populations that live along the river - close to the plants. The regions that were created for analysis, critics claim, group small slices of industrial areas with large rural areas, potentially skewing the data.
But even when there is strong empirical evidence of adverse health effects, the results can be less than reassuring. In Mossville, a small community surrounded by multiple chemical companies, two dozen residents were found to have elevated levels of dioxin, which is reported to be linked to cancer and auto-immune disease. Local environmental groups, including the Mossville Environmental Action Network [MEAN], claim they met with resistance from federal and state regulators when they initially reported problems in their community. Eventually, a comprehensive air sampling program was begun under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), the Lake Area Alliance, a local group, and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). No final report has been issued yet.
Whether by chance or calculation, many chemical plants and refineries are located in areas that have high concentrations of poor people. Often, these communities have a high percentage of African-American residents. These circumstances fostered the concept of “environmental racism” within the environmental movement, and fueled an era of intense debate, protest and press coverage in the 1990s. When the Shintech Company announced in 1996 that it planned to build a giant PVC plant in tiny Convent, Louisiana, opposition mounted quickly. The mostly black community was poor and under-educated, but it became the center of a fire-storm of marches, public hearings and media attention. As the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic prepared to file the country’s first environmental racism law suit in federal court, Shintech decided to build elsewhere. They broke ground in 1998 on a smaller facility upriver in West Baton Rouge Parish.
During the controversy over the Convent plant, the DEQ was excoriated by environmental groups like the Louisiana Environmental Action Network [LEAN] for alleged favoritism toward Shintech. Over the years, the DEQ has been the target of much criticism from environmental groups for a lack of aggressive enforcement of federal and state anti-pollution laws. In 2003, in an extremely rare move, the EPA threatened to strip the DEQ of its pollution enforcement duties if it did not change its ways of doing business. The EPA cited, among other things, too little focus on fines and laxity in collecting fines that were imposed. The DEQ has agreed to comply with the changes demanded by the EPA.
Of Louisiana’s 64 parishes, the five in and around the state capital in Baton Rouge are in “non-attainment” of federal clean air standards. This means the air is considered to be unhealthy. If the parishes do not reduce harmful air emissions, the EPA has threatened sanctions which could cost residents and businesses in the area millions of dollars. Sources for the offending chemicals include cars, trucks, barges, trains and industrial plants. A network of air monitors has been set up to try to identify “point-source” emissions from specific locations.
Petrochemical plants are not the only source of pollution in Louisiana. Other industries, such as coal-fired energy plants, emit toxins such as mercury. Mercury, in the form of methyl-mercury, eventually can wind up in fish. Of Louisiana’s current 44 fish advisories for waterways across the state, 36 are for mercury contamination.
A new potential source for pollution is just arriving on the scene. The state is actively recruiting Liquefied Natural Gas [LNG] facilities on and near Louisiana’s coast. Natural gas, which has been super-cooled into a liquid state for transportation, will be re-gasified by the LNG plants using heat. Four of the proposed plants will use an “open loop” process which could involve up to 200 million gallons of water a day, per plant. All living organisms in the water column are destroyed during the process, and the water is expelled at a much colder temperature than the surrounding water.
Supporters of the plants say they are needed to alleviate the high cost of natural gas, which is used as a prime source of energy and as feed stock for the petrochemical industry in Louisiana. High US natural gas prices have forced cut backs and raised the possibility of plant relocation to other countries.
Environmentalists, as well as commercial and sports fishing interests are concerned about the impact on the area’s aquatic life. If all the LNG plants seeking permits are constructed, as much as a half a billion gallons of water a day could be adversely affected.
The consequence of industrial development can be the hiss of gases escaping into the air, or the ripple of waves washing over a highway roadbed. It can also be the rumble of cement mixers; the squeak of conveyor belts loaded with goods, or the ring of cash registers and school bells – the sounds of communities prospering and growing. Striking a sensible balance between a healthy, sustainable environment and a healthy, sustainable economy depends on the answer to one question: are the rewards worth the risks? It’s a question that must be asked – and answered – each and every day.
URLs to check out:
Louisiana Environmental Action Network
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality
Louisiana Chemical Association
For information about fish advisories in Louisiana:
For information on air, ground and water quality: DEQ web site at http://www.deq.la.gov.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Reigistry: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/
For air quality info go to American Lung Association "State of the Air 2005" website
Fore LNG information:
use the following search terms: LNG louisiana