Report: Louisiana ranks high in toxic releases into waterways

The state may not rank high in polls for fighting poverty or educating its children, but Louisiana hit a lot of the top fives when it comes to the amount of toxic material released to state waterways every year, according to a new report from the Environment America Research and Policy Center.

The state came in third in the nation in pounds of toxic releases, second in amount of releases combined with their actual toxicity, third in pounds of cancer-causing chemicals released, second in developmental toxics and fifth in reproductive toxics.

In total, 12.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals were put into Louisiana waterways in 2012.

“Our view is that can’t possibly be consistent with our views of streams being safe for swimming, fishing or drinking,” said John Rumpler, senior attorney with Environment America Research and Policy Center, a nonprofit organization involved in environmental advocacy and public education. “The bottom line is these huge volumes of pollution have to be affecting our health, our ecosystem, our water.”

The amounts come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory and reflect the self-reported amounts from industries that are required to report.

It doesn’t account for all the pollution put into Louisiana waterways, just what is required by law to be reported.

Except for accidents or catastrophic releases, which the EPA information doesn’t separate out, the amounts mostly reflect what a facility is allowed to release to the environment based on their permits.

“A lot of our report does not indicate whether these discharges are legal or illegal,” Rumpler said. “Either way, we have a big problem in our view.”

Even though Louisiana ranks near the top in the country under different calculations of pollution to water, there is no steady No. 1. Depending on what’s being measured, Louisiana finds itself trailing behind Indiana, Nevada, Alabama, Kentucky, Washington, Wisconsin or Texas, depending on how and what toxic releases are being measured, according to the report.

The report calls for the strengthening of enforcement and permitting under current law, convincing industry to reduce use of toxic chemicals and to improve the public’s access to information about toxic releases to watershed, including those releases from hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas.

Some of those reductions are already happening, according to industry.

Although the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge refinery ranked 20th in the nation for most total pounds reported to EPA, Stephanie Cargile, spokeswoman with ExxonMobil, said about 98 percent of the amount was reported to TRI as being discharged to the Mississippi River. Nitrates aren’t regulated federally or by the state, she wrote in an email. The nitrates released by the facility are a byproduct of a process to treat ammonia, which is regulated.

However, ExxonMobil is nearing completion of a project that will almost cut in half the 2012 releases by reducing about 1 million pounds of nitrate from the facility’s discharge. The new treatment process to remove nitrates from the facility’s waste water will also “reduce the refinery’s total reportable air emissions, water discharges and offsite waste transfers by 30 percent,” Cargile wrote.

The purpose of the report is twofold, Rumpler said. First, it’s to raise public awareness about just how much pollution gets pumped into the nation’s waterways every year. The second is to bring up the importance of the proposed rule from EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in March that would clarify what is and isn’t covered under the Clean Water Act.

In the wake of an emerging environmental movement, high-profile environmental disasters like the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire helped spur the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Among other things, the act outlines that any pollution discharged from a pipe — whether it’s from industry, city or business — has to be permitted.

Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006 muddied the waters of how and what should be regulated under the act, according to EPA. Rumpler said the rulings put a large loophole in the act that took away protections for many streams and wetlands that had previously been covered. The new proposed rule, he said, would extend the coverage of the Clean Water Act back to many of these areas.

“We’re not at all claiming that simply adopting this rule from EPA is the only things that will clean up water in Louisiana,” Rumpler said. “This proposed rule on the Clean Water Act is one clear step in the right direction.”

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