What would have happened in Baton Rouge two weeks ago if the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality had followed up immediately on community reports about terrible odors in the neighborhood from Exxon?
Might the 28,000-pound release of benzene — a known carcinogen — have been prevented? Perhaps neighbors would have been evacuated and the risk of exposure reduced.
Instead the LDEQ replied to community concerns with information provided by Exxon. Not surprisingly, Exxon reported that the accident was a minor one. This is what happens when polluters police themselves.
On Thursday afternoon — eight hours after Exxon reported that the accident was over — residents reported terrible odors. Two officials from the Environmental Protection Agency were in the neighborhood smelling it, too. Their response? To cover their noses and drive away without so much as a follow-up phone call.
On Friday, still more information about an ongoing, serious problem was provided to the DEQ. Despite clear requests from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Exxon neighbors, there were no DEQ staff dispatched to the neighborhood and there were no further inquiries — even over email — to get more information. Exxon’s report was again quoted in the reply. Everything was fine, we were told, even as a 28,000-pound release was under way.
Over the last decade, I have battled with DEQ to overcome the dynamic of the all-powerful polluter. Why shouldn’t DEQ follow the Crimestopper model in which tips from the public are actively sought and followed up on? Instead tips are brushed aside with the same tired retort: “Exxon told us it’s OK.”
Even when an DEQ staffer is sent to the scene, they typically arrive long after the problem has peaked. In the case of the Exxon release, air samples were taken at 9 p.m. on Saturday night, seven hours and several days after the agency was alerted about persistent problems.
My goal has never been to simply harass DEQ. Rather, the goal is for the agency to honor its responsibility and respond to community concerns. Assistant DEQ Secretary Cheryl Nolan acknowledged as much in an article when she noted that community reports “help trigger additional action from the agency.”
Under the status quo, however, no citizen can have faith in Nolan’s encouragement. I can only hope that the sad and preventable events of the last two weeks prompt renewed, genuine community engagement from the DEQ. We stand ready to collaborate.
Anne Rolfes, founding director
Louisiana Bucket Brigade