In the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, Gulf Coast residents have been exposed to toxic emissions from chemical fires and oil and gas refinery plants—but we don’t even know how much pollution, because some important air monitors are offline.
Laura made landfall in Cameron, Louisiana last Wednesday, in the heart of a U.S. petrochemical hub. Residents are regularly exposed to high levels of toxic air pollution that has been linked to increased levels of cancer and respiratory disease for the majority of-color communities nearby even under normal conditions.
The storm’s arrival likely brought even more pollution into the region. On Thursday, storm damage led to a chlorine leak at a swimming pool chemical manufacturing facility. That leak, in turn, ignited fires in surrounding facilities, which released chlorine gas. Exposure to both chlorine gas can lead to myriad health issues. NOLA.com reported that the chlorine fire was among more than 50 pollution events in Louisiana linked to the storm Laura that have been reported to the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center since Thursday.
How much pollution is being released is still unclear, though. In the days before Laura made landfall, Louisiana and Texas regulators took dozens of air quality monitors offline, fearing they could be destroyed by the deluge.
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report shared with Earther said that “no significant concentrations of airborne chemicals...had been detected within the residential area since the start of the incident,” referring to the fire and its own monitoring efforts using planes and handheld monitorsdevices that are separate from the state. The report also shows that on Thursday, a storage tank leaked an unknown amount of crude oil into a marsh south of Calcasieu Lake in Louisiana’s Cameron Parish. Crude oil leaks can be irritating to eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and the leaks emit chemicals such as benzene, xylene, toluene, and ethylbenzene, which are harmful to breathe.
The EPA has offered to help Texas and Louisiana search for any so-far undiscovered hazardous sources of air pollution after the hurricane. But while Texas has accepted the offer, Louisiana has not, only requesting help to track the emissions of the chlorine plant fire. That means that despite the clear risks, locals don’t actually know what levels of these toxins are in the air around them. The situation mirrors what happened during Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago.
“You’d think in the 15 years since, they would have learned to armor their air quality monitors, back them up with extra batteries, back them up with solar panels, build them to withstand flood surge, but it doesn’t seem they’ve learned,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, an environmental justice organizer with Sierra Club in New Orleans.
Before the storm hit the coast, oil and gas refineries, plastic manufacturers and chemical plants began to close up their operations. This process of shutdown is part of companies’ safety procedures, but it increases levels of toxic emissions, since it often involves burning excess fuel and chemicals that are dangerous to leave sitting stagnant in pipes. In Texas, facilities released more than 4 million pounds of extra air pollution. Officials in Louisiana, meanwhile, have not announced how much pollution was released in the state when the industry shutdown.
“They haven’t even said if they collected the data,” said Malek-Wiley.
Wilma Subra, a chemist with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said that while petrochemical agencies are required to send reports of their emissions to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, community members don’t have access to them.
“They’re required to submit it to the regulatory agencies within generally 24 hours, but they have seven days to provide it to the community, to the public,” she said.
This lack of information can make it difficult for residents to know which areas people living in the area should avoid.
“That’s especially true because while some of these gases [like chlorine and benzene] have a real odor when they hit particular levels, some other gases you can’t even smell in the air,” Malek-Wiley said. For instance, ethylene oxide, which is used in the manufacture many other chemicals in southern Louisiana and has a host of nasty health impacts, is odorless at levels that can still cause harm.
It’s also important because in the area, residents are often exposed to more than one toxic chemical at once.
“So if you take the chlorine fire, for example, chlorine gas is super toxic and it’s actually been used as in chemical warfare as a choking agent,” said Kimberly Terrell, Tulane Environmental Law Clinic’s director of community outreach. But chlorine is dangerous even when at lower levels because, she said, “chlorine can react with ammonia, for example, to produce chloramines, which are very, very highly toxic...so there’s a lot more besides the level of chlorine gas that that we should be concerned about.”
The lack of transparency about emissions can also make it hard to hold facilities accountable for their pollution.
“If there’s data, sometimes you can point to a specific violation by a company, saying they violated some regulation in particular, and then you can you have some legal hooks and try to wage a lawsuit,” said Malek-Wiley. “But if you don’t have any kind of data, you can’t just go fishing and say, ‘I want to sue all these companies because I think something happened.’ That doesn’t go very far in court.”
Though Sierra Club and other nonprofit organizations do their own air quality monitoring of some pollutants, doing so can be cost-prohibitive, and can be difficult for citizens to execute safely during severe weather. Terrell said there’s more the state could be doing to ensure citizens know more about the air they’re breathing.
“One thing that the [Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality] could easily have done that it has not yet done is to mobilize all of its mobile air monitoring units,” she said. Currently, none of these units are being deployed in the Lake Charles area, where the greatest damage occurred.
Though Hurricane Laura has exacerbated issues with pollution and monitoring in Louisiana, the problem didn’t begin with the hurricane. Environmental groups have been pushing for an increased level of fenceline monitoring at all petrochemical plants for years, and also pushing to stop the state from expanding its petrochemical infrastructure.
Yet it seems that the state is moving in the opposite direction. Louisiana’s emissions from its petrochemical hub are expected to increase dramatically over the next few years due to newly planned projects such as a $9.4 billion Formosa chemical facility. The state’s environmental quality department actually requested to take one of its air quality monitors in that region offline, according to Terrell.
She said these impacts will be even worse because the Louisiana residents burdened with all of this pollution are disproportionately low-income, and often don’t have the resources to evacuate dangerous areas amid threatening events like chemical fires and leaks caused by hurricanes. In the aftermath of Laura, residents who couldn’t leave have been left without power in the midst of a sweltering heat wave, and the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals is making a bad situation worse worse.
This all points to the need to better regulate the emissions that these plants produce—and ultimately, move away from petrochemicals and the fossil fuels they’re based on altogether.