Industry conference addresses regulatory, workforce, water issues

There are ways for federal and state regulators to work with chemical and other industrial companies to both protect the environment and grow profits, a federal official said Wednesday in Baton Rouge.

Ron Curry, administrator for Dallas-based EPA Region 6, made those remarks before hundreds of people attending the annual legislative conference of the Louisiana Chemical Association and Louisiana Chemical Industry Alliance at the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center. The conference covered regulatory, workforce and water issues.

“We have many things in common that we are trying to do,” Curry added. “On most days, we’re all working for the same outcome.”

Curry explained that he once owned a small business in New Mexico. He said the firm heated large quantities of asphalt so employees could mix it with aggregate “and turn it into highway.”

An environmental regulator called him one day in the mid-1980s, Curry recalled, and ordered the installation of a filter on a vent on a storage tank.

Curry said he immediately agreed to install the filter, but asked the regulator for guidance on the best means for complying with the order.

The regulator directed Curry to begin the project without guidance, adding, Curry said, “We’ll tell you when you get it right.”

Curry said his business was small, so he could not afford to make a mistake on the purchase and installation of a filter assembly.

Curry said he wants his regional employees to provide clarity during any discussions between EPA, state environmental regulators and the businesses affected by environmental guidelines.

“We have to collaborate,” Curry repeated.

EPA Region 6 includes Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arkansas.

Sasol North America is designing two industrial facilities in Calcasieu Parish that are expected to cost a combined $20 billion.

Curry said Sasol officials asked early for EPA guidance on how to plan, build and operate those plants in accordance with environmental laws.

The regional EPA administrator said his staff has complied with Sasol’s requests for information because “we’re trying to find those outcomes that best serve the community.”

Curry emphasized he wants all members of his staff to realize they have an opportunity each day “to have a direct, positive impact on the community.”

The regional administrator said any staffer who regularly remembers that opportunity will be able to look in a mirror and say: “You are not a bureaucrat. You’re a public servant.”

In other remarks, John White, Louisiana Superintendent of Education, voiced his continued support for more rigorous Common Core standards.

Kids in Louisiana must be required to take algebra in the eighth grade in order to hone their math skills as sharply as those in Massachusetts and a number of other states, White insisted.

“I don’t believe kids in California or New York or any other state are smarter than our kids in Louisiana,” the superintendent added. “That’s why I believe in the Common Core standards.”

As he has in the past, White insisted that Louisiana schools must cease gearing their programs for the 20 percent of Louisiana students who eventually will earn a college degree.

“We’ve got to stop labeling kids either career or college,” White added. “It is time to end the stigma of career education.”

Reading, writing, math and the ability to think through problems are skills that all Louisiana students should possess at high school graduation, White emphasized. He said those are the students companies in Louisiana will want to hire.

Outside the meeting room, Dan S. Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, said the association endorses White’s position on Common Core.

“We’re optimistic about it,” Borne said.

Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College, told the audience that businesses also want to hire young people who have practical training and experience.

Sullivan said two-year colleges play an important role in “changing Louisiana’s future by investing in our people.”

More than $60 billion in new industrial plants or expansions of existing facilities are planned in Louisiana, said Michael Hayes, manager of public affairs for Sasol.

Those facilities will need tens of thousands of new employees.

“This natural gas boom is not a bubble,” and jobs are coming, Hayes added.

In Calcasieu Parish, however, 20 percent of the potential workforce is unemployable, Hayes said.

“We need to address that 20 percent of the population that is going to be left behind,” Hayes insisted.

Sasol has trained more than 150 mentors to push potential employees to get their high school diplomas.

Mentors also can help people develop life skills, beginning with: “Get to work on time,” Hayes added.

Sasol also will hire human resources professionals to help residents navigate their way through today’s economy, Hayes said. “Let’s put that 20 percent to work.”

State and local government decisions in the next few months and years will have a significant bearing on Louisiana’s future, Hayes said.

“We want southwest Louisiana to be the place where people want to move first,” Hayes said. “We’re either going to get better, a better quality of life, or we’re not.”

Increased industrial development often means increased demand for water.

Stephen Chustz, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, and Jim Welsh, the state’s conservation commissioner, said water supplies are sufficient for both growing numbers of households and new industry.

“I want to make one thing clear,” said Chustz. “Louisiana doesn’t have a shortage of water.”

DNR programs are aimed at preserving ground and surface water levels and protecting water from salt water intrusion, Chustz said, adding that the needs of individual residents and industry are not incompatible.

Welsh alluded to residents’ concerns about the use of surface water supplies in extraction processes used in gas and oil drilling. And he said many residents have expressed concerns about increased saltwater intrusion in the Southern Hills Aquifer that supplies 150 million gallons of water to East Baton Rouge Parish residents daily.

Outside the meeting room, Welsh and Chustz said spreading new wells across a wider region and drilling them to different water-bearing strata can both protect drinking water and serve industry’s needs.

“We have a management issue, not a water supply issue,” Welsh said.