Feature: Louisiana's chemical corridor

By ALLEN JOHNSON JR.  |  Oct. 23, 2001 at 5:47 PM
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NEW ORLEANS, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- For at least a dozen years, environmentalist Darryl Malek-Wiley and chemical industry spokesman Dan Borne have clashed over safety and environmental issues in Louisiana's "chemical corridor," which along with New Jersey and Texas, are the most populated, concentrated industrial passages in the United States.

Since Sept. 11, however, their debate has become one-sided.

"We have been lucky to escape a major chemical accident so far, let alone a terrorist attack," says Malek-Wiley, the heavy-bearded chair of the New Orleans Group Sierra Club. "We have some very toxic airborne chemicals out there that could be released."

Nearly 150 plants and refineries, including one nuclear power plant, dot both sides of a 100-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that includes New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

With the exception of Shintech, a new Japanese plastics manufacturing plant at Plaquemine, La., most facilities are at least 20 years old. A few were built in the 1920s, such as the Shell refinery in Norco, La., and the Exxon refinery at Baton Rouge.

Huge quantities of hazardous materials are transported daily through the state by truck, rail, barge, and a network of pipelines. An accidental release of chlorine, ammonia or phosgene gas from any one plant or transportation source would spell catastrophe for tens of thousands of people living nearby, Malek-Wiley says.

Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, declined to respond to his old foe.

"Security has been heightened at Louisiana petrochemical plants," Borne said on Sept. 11. "For obvious reasons, the less said the better."

Borne, who represents 70 chemical companies -- two-thirds of which are in the corridor -- also declined comment on Malek-Wiley's Sept. 11 admission that environmentalists too easily dismissed the industry's repeated warnings that public access to its federal filings of catastrophic chemical accident scenarios could help terrorists attack the United States. A month later, Borne declined to respond to Malek-Wiley's suggestion that both industry and environmentalists turn over a new leaf and work together on safety and environment issues.

"Environmentalists don't want to compromise national security," Malek-Wiley says. "But the people who live near these plants, rail lines, roads or waterways where these tremendous amounts of hazardous materials are transported need to have an understanding of the possible risk of living where they are living. They need to make an informed decision if they want to move."

Borne's terse reply: "Nothing has changed since Sept. 11. We are clamped down jelly-jar tight. We are cooperating totally with local, state and federal authorities."

Dr. Gerald Poje, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, says Louisiana should revisit both plant safety and security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the "monumental chemical accident" in France on Sept. 21. The ammonium-nitrite explosion at an agricultural-chemical plant in Toulouse left 29 people dead and 2,400 injured.

"The events of Sept. 11 tell us we have to be attentive to security," says Poje, a toxicologist. "And the events of Sept. 21 get us back to understanding we have to prevent all causes of accidental explosions and releases -- not just terrorism."

The public also needs information about the hazards and risks of chemicals in the corridor, "so should there be something that goes awry, they are best prepared for responding in a way that protects human life and the environment."

The security-versus-public awareness debate in Louisiana pre-dates Sept. 11.

In 1999, the chemical industry persuaded Congress to limit public access to the worst-case scenarios its plants were required to submit under federal "right-to-know" laws.

Filings by 50 Louisiana chemical companies, published in March, suggest a chilling potential for accidental catastrophes reminiscent of the 1984 Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India, that left more than 2,500 dead and 100,000 injured. In one Louisiana scenario, more than 900,000 people would be at risk from a chlorine gas leak at a publicly owned water purification plant in New Orleans, next door to a popular playground.

Could there be a Bhopal-type accident in the Louisiana corridor? Not likely, according to Dale Givens, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

In a written response to United Press International questions, he said: "The potential today for such an incident is greatly lessened due to the implementation and ongoing revisions of federal and state regulatory programs addressing this issue ...

"The LDEQ is unaware of any incident in recent history that even comes close to the scale of the incident in India. Deaths and injuries involving major releases have nearly always been confined to the affected facility."

Givens adds the state has "a good track record in managing and minimizing the effects of major chemical releases." He says LDEQ has trained personnel "strategically located statewide ready to respond at any hour to incidents where there is an environmental threat."

Joe Puglia, spokesperson for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, which operates the water purification plant, adds the board has separate plans to respond to acts of terrorism and accidental leaks. The last time the board reported an accidental toxic release was about a year and half ago, when chlorine escaped from a tank car stored on railroad tracks near a residential neighborhood. Since Sept. 11, fire officials say, rail cars containing hazardous materials may no longer be stored in populated areas.

Givens says that Louisiana residents are evacuated when it is necessary to take precautionary measures greater than a "shelter-in-place."

"Shelter-in-place," is an emergency response to an airborne chemical accident generally favored by government and industry. It calls on citizens to stay indoors until officials say it's safe to leave. Added precautions include sealing windows and doors, placing wet towels in crevices, and shutting ventilation systems to prevent infusions of deadly gas.

However, New Orleans Fire Superintendent Warren McDaniels acknowledges most residents are not familiar with "shelter in place" procedures.

Terry Tullier, chief of the Orleans Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness, says the city is working on an emergency phone system, which would automatically call and warn residents of a chemical plume. The system is already in place in neighboring Jefferson Parish (county).

Officials in the upriver parishes of St. Charles and St. James parishes, meanwhile, have used federally funded warning systems required for the Waterford III nuclear plant at Taft, La., to warn residents of chemical accidents.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, deride the concept as "die in place."

"If you have a plume of chlorine and it surrounds your house, I think you're gone," says Paul Templet, a professor of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University. "And there's no way to outrun it, because you are not going to get enough warning. You can get in the shower and hope that the water will strip some of the chemicals out of the air, but if it's really concentrated stuff that's not going to save you."

Interviewed before Sept. 11, Templet says residents who live within 0.5 miles of a corridor plant should move or buy a self-contained respirator.

The corridor has long recorded high air pollution rates based on self-reported data by industry to federal regulators. Givens and the industry note that Toxic Release Inventory data has dramatically decreased since the introduction of TRI data in 1987. Environmentalists dismiss the research as too limited.

During the recently completed ozone season, the skies over five parishes in the corridor accounted for Louisiana's only failing grades from federal regulators for air pollution.

From May 1 to Sept. 30, residents in the corridor adjust their schedules to air quality forecasts from LDEQ. A "Code Orange" alert means children, the elderly, and adults with asthma or other respiratory problems are urged to avoid "prolonged outdoor exertion." Nursing homes, day care centers and hospitals were also requested take the appropriate cautions.

"For the most part, (the plants and refineries) are not in compliance with air quality standard," Wilma Subra, a chemist and board member of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, says.

She says "huge quantities" of benzene and other toxic chemicals are released into the air daily, endangering the health of residents within a half-mile of the facilities "on a regular basis." LEAN has accused LDEQ of lax enforcement on environment regulations. The environmental coalition has also asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act, currently a responsibility of LDEQ.

Givens insists LDEQ is doing its job. "Considerable time and effort is spent inspecting large industrial sources in the state including petro-chemical plants in the corridor," he says. "Where areas of concern are identified, they are referred to the department's enforcement division for appropriate corrective action."

Meanwhile, chemical industry facilities in the corridor get high marks from two other federal regulators.

"As a general proposition the safety records of these facilities are very good," says Thomas Sparks, commander of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in New Orleans.

Sparks emphasizes the Coast Guard's jurisdiction is limited to the narrow area of dockside transfers of hazardous materials between the plant and a ship or barge. "There have not been any catastrophic releases and only a very few, very minor releases, but they did not present a danger to the public," he said. "We have not had any big civil penalty cases against facilities for chemical releases in recent history."

John J. Deifer, director of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration at Baton Rouge, declined an interview but another OSHA official earlier acknowledged that overall, the chemical industry has suffered few accidents and injuries in recent years.

Asked what actions LDEQ has taken since Sept. 11 to reduce the likelihood of a deadly chemical release in the corridor, Givens suggested preparations for a past "worst-case scenario" may not have been in vain.

"This agency is presently taking the same steps to assess its readiness as it did prior to the millennium date change," Givens says.

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