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Request to revoke LDEQ Authority to administer environmental laws

May 17th, 2012

May 17, 2012

Lisa Jackson
Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency
Mail Code 1101A

Arthur Elkins
Office of Inspector General
Environmental Protection Agency
Mail Code 2410T

Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20460

Re: LDEQ’s inadequate response to chemical emergencies poses serious dangers to the public; Renewed request to revoke LDEQ’s authority

Dear Administrator Jackson:

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Environmental Integrity Project are renewing our petition to the EPA to revoke the LDEQ’s authority to manage the Clean Air Act program due to the frequency of accidents at petrochemical facilities happening in our area. Each of these accidents releases enormous amounts of hazardous pollution that pose risks to the health and safety of the communities we advocate for. As of today, we still have not received a response to our petition, filed on December 14, 2011.

Already, in the first half of 2012, we have seen four major chemical emergencies in the 90-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge:

  1. March 22, 2012 - A tank explodes at Westlake Chemical in Geismar, releasing vinyl chloride and chlorine. Even though the tank exploded at 8:30 A.M., EPA did not start air monitoring until that afternoon. Because of wind conditions, the Modeste community, across the river in Acension Parish, was at the greatest risk of exposure. Notwithstanding these conditions, the Geismar community was required to shelter-in-place, while the Modeste community was not even notified of the potential danger of exposure to hazardous air pollution.

  1. May 8, 2012 - Shell Chemical in Norco is struck by lightning and flares for over 24 hours, releasing benzene, butadiene, carbon monoxide, ethylene, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxide, propylene, sulfur dioxide, xylene, and other volatile organic compounds. LDEQ air monitors arrive on the scene 12 hours after the fact. Despite their tardiness and failure to collect representative data, the agency publicly stated that the release posed no danger to the public.

  1. May 10, 2012 - Westlake Chemical suffers a power outage in the same unit as the March accident, releasing more vinyl chloride and sending three workers to the hospital for inhalation injuries.

  1. May 15, 2012 - Honeywell in Baton Rouge leaks hydrofluoric acid. There is no LDEQ presence at the scene even though the LDEQ Headquarters are less than two miles from the plant.

This list is not comprehensive and does not include the chronic accidents that occur at petrochemical plants in the region. According to the National Response Center, there are approximately 10 per day all over the state. This pattern is of great concern, especially as hurricane season approaches.

Even more troublesome is the LDEQ’s propensity to consistently declare to the public that these accidents pose no danger, despite health impacts suffered and reported to the agency. According to LDEQ, the agency statements are based on their own air monitoring results conducted at the scene. We have little confidence in their air monitoring.

  • LDEQ’s air monitoring team arrives at the scene too late to accurately measure peak exposure. Measurements taken more than several hours after the initial release are not representative and are a poor indicator of the public health and safety risks of the accident.

  • LDEQ refuses to share key information about their monitoring efforts following an industrial accident with the community on a timely basis. Instead, the agency requires a community to submit a public records request to find out about: 1) the location of the air monitors, 2) the pollutants measured, 3) the equipment used to measure the air quality, and 3) the detection limits of the equipment. We are still waiting for this basic information, even though we filed a records request more than several days ago. This information is most useful to the community, hours or even days after the accident – not weeks.

  • The data that is provided is neither transparent nor comprehensible. It is impossible to determine the peak concentration of pollution. As a result, communities impacted by acute exposure to this pollution never learn the extent of the risks they face.

The LABB’s iWitness Pollution Map (www.labucketbrigade.org) is a real time crowd sourced map of citizen reports of petrochemical accidents and their effects on people’s health and their environment. The Shell Norco accident resulted in a record 10 reports from citizens impacted by the smoking flare. The Honeywell Baton Rouge hydrofluoric acid leak resulted in two reports. These reports, detailing symptoms of acute chemical exposure, contradict the “no danger to the public” statements made by LDEQ and the companies. LABB conducts due diligence with these reports by sending them to all enforcement agencies, including the EPA, the US Coast Guard and LDEQ. LDEQ is usually the last to respond to these emails, often many days later.

This poor response creates even more danger to the public because:

  1. People are exposed to toxic chemicals.

  2. Evacuation/shelter in place orders are not called.

  3. Health surveillance for symptoms of chemical exposure is not conducted (since the Department of Health and Hospitals relies on LDEQ’s assessment). To our knowledge in the last twelve years, LDEQ has never once stated that their monitoring found an accident to pose a danger to the public. This is most likely because they arrive at the scene several hours after the chemical accident. Unfortunately, the residents who live in these communities do not have the same luxury.

  4. It discredits the reputation of the LDEQ in protecting public health and the environment. LDEQ’s failure to ever find a problem, even when communities can smell the pollution and are reporting symptoms of acute exposure, creates a gulf in trust. This trust gulf poses problems for emergency preparedness.

  5. It increases the population at risk. If people believe the LDEQ statements that these accidents pose no danger to the public, they make decisions like buying a house next to a refinery or sending their kids to school near a chemical plant due to a (false) sense of safety.

We have been tracking citizen complaints made to the LDEQ since 2005 on our Refinery Accident Database (http://www.labucketbrigade.org). In some cases it takes LDEQ over 20 days to get to the scene of reported air pollution. Obviously, the monitor will not pick up anything 20 days later! Air pollution can move within a matter of minutes, so quick response times are necessary to accurately measure the public health risk and environmental consequences of the accident.

In December 2011, the LABB and the Environmental Integrity Project petitioned EPA to review and, if necessary, revoke the LDEQ’s authority to manage the Clean Air Act program. The LDEQ’s inability to respond to environmental emergencies in a timely manner is just one more symptom of the funding shortfalls that make it harder for state officials to meet their responsibilities under the Clean Air Act. According to the Inspector General’s report:

  • Louisiana “has the lowest enforcement level activities in the Region 6 and ranked in the . . . bottom quartile for Clean Air Act” enforcement; and that

  • Louisiana’s poor performance can be attributed to a “lack of resources....and a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry.”

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade/EIP petition outlines the following shortcomings in the state’s implementation of the Clean Air Act program:

  • In 2008, Louisiana underfunded the Title V program by nearly $10 million dollars compared to federal minimum standards. The federal minimum and Texas’ title V fee structure in 2008 would have generated more than $15 million based on Louisiana’s 2008 air emissions inventory.

  • Louisiana’s average yearly expenditure on the Title V program between 2005 and 2010 was $4.4 million — about $6.5 million less than what the state estimated it would annually need in 1993.

  • Louisiana spent less than $5000 per facility to implement the Title V program in 2008. This is insufficient to cover the cost of issuing permits, monitoring some of the largest and most complex petrochemical plants in the nation, and taking enforcement actions when necessary. As a point of comparison, Texas spent about $21,000 per facility on average in 2008.

  • Louisiana does not take enforcement actions or otherwise resolve serious violations of the Clean Air Act in a timely manner. At the end of 2010, nearly 30 percent of the “High Priority Violations” identified by the state went unresolved for 270 days or more. EPA policy requires state agencies to resolve all High Priority Violations within 270 days.

  •  When Louisiana does take enforcement actions, the penalties are a little more than a slap on the wrist. In 2010, the average penalty for a Clean Air Act Violation in Louisiana was $1,329.86 — the second lowest in the nation. In Texas, the average penalty for a violation of the Clean Air Act was $26,619.92 in 2010 — more than 22 times greater.

  • Louisiana does not check the compliance status of major sources of air pollution on a regular basis. Between 2009 and 2010, Louisiana only checked the compliance status of 75 percent of major facilities operating in the state. EPA policy requires state agencies to complete comprehensive compliance evaluations for all major facilities every two years.

We will continue to push the EPA to evaluate LDEQ’s implementation of the Clean Air Act and take the necessary actions to ensure that:

1) LDEQ responds to industrial accidents and provides necessary information to the affected communities in a timely manner;

2) LDEQ improves and expands fenceline monitoring in the state; and

3) LDEQ increases enforcement and compliance monitoring activities — at least to the point where the agency satisfies the minimum requirements of the Clean Air Act.

We look forward to your response by June 22, 2012.

Sincerely,

Anna Hrybyk
Program Manager

CC:

Peggy Hatch, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ)
Cheryl Nolan, Administrator of Enforcement, LDEQ
Esteban Herrera, Chief of Air Toxics Enforcement, EPA Region VI
Sam Coleman, Acting Regional Administrator, EPA Region VI
Steve Mason, Emergency Response, EPA Region VI
Mathy Stanislaus, Solid Waste and Emergency Response, EPA HQ
Cynthia Giles, Administrator Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, EPA HQ
Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director, Environmental Integrity Project
Anne Rolfes, Founding Director, Louisiana Bucket Brigade