Pearl River disaster response shows Louisiana still not prepared for emergencies

Anna Hrybyk is the program manager for LABB.

In my previous job, I worked in India to build community capacity to prepare for and respond to disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes, flooding and drought. What happened with the Temple-Inland paper mill in Bogalusa was a disaster – a man-made chemical emergency and a serious threat to public and environmental health. The paper mill dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of wood pulp sludge into the Pearl River, a state wildlife treasure, killing hundreds of thousands of fish, millions of mussels, turtles and the endangered Gulf sturgeon.

LABB was asked to testify to the State Senate Committee on Environmental Quality on August 22 in Bogalusa. My testimony was last after the following cast of the Pearl River chemical disaster:

  • Secretary Peggy Hatch, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality
  • Department of Health and Hospitals, Office of Public Health
  • Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
  • Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness
  • St. Tammany Parish President
  • Washington Parish President
  • Bogalusa City Mayor
  • Temple-Inland Bogalusa Paper Mill
  • Paul Orr, Louisiana Environmental Action Network/Lower Mississippi River Keeper

Dead fish are seen floating in the Pearl River. Photo from the Times-Picayune

Though we are not currently working with communities close to the Temple-Inland paper mill, there are several issues in this incident that highlight the dangerous lack of preparedness for chemical emergencies in this state – something our organization is committed to addressing.

We deal with disasters like this one frequently. Refinery accidents alone average 10 per week statewide. This does not count paper mills or chemical plants. Reports to the National Response Center for hazardous industry throughout the state average 100-200 per month (click here for an example of an NRC report from last week).

We have been analyzing trends in these accidents since 2005 (refinery reports are uploaded to our Refinery Accident Database) and we consistently see wastewater and chemical releases to nearby bodies of water, particularly during rainstorms. Residents in St. Bernard joke “Cloudy with a chance of oil,” because of the frequency of stinky petrochemical waste from Chalmette Refining or Murphy Oil spilling over into neighborhood canals and ditches where children fish and play whenever there’s a downpour. When I presented our analysis (taken from the Common Ground report) to the St. Bernard Emergency Planning Commission on June 27, the response from commission chairman and St. Bernard Fire Chief Thomas Stone was less than comforting for a person who was supposed to ensure our public health and safety during emergencies. He told me and the commission: “Well, I guess we will have to ban rainstorms, then.”  No, you have to plan for them.

According to the written notification on the wood pulp sludge spill from Temple-Inland to LDEQ dated Aug. 14, the “black liquor” was released into the Pearl River in the early morning of Aug. 9. The facility failed to provide any initial verbal or written notification about this release, which is against the law. If a person knowingly let oil into the water, the Coast Guard would handcuff them and place them under arrest.

LDEQ did not arrive on the scene to sample the water until Aug. 14, five days after the wood pulp sludge was dumped into the river. They also sampled at the site of the release, when most of the “black liquor” and dead fish had already moved downstream. As to be expected, they did not find any chemicals of concern.

Even though the facility submitted a letter to LDEQ on Aug. 14 describing the sequence of events, the public still does not know how much black liquor was released and what chemicals the black liquor contained. Why is this important? If we knew how much of what chemicals were released, we could choose an appropriate sampling regimen that would test for chemicals actually released (not just what we assume) with appropriate detection limits and we could design public health advisories that were protective. The LDEQ tested for 31 Volatile Organic Compounds but Temple-Inland’s wastewater permit also reports approximately 20 more chemicals, including phenols and base acid compounds like naphthalene, which are much more toxic and bioaccumulate in seafood.

For chemical emergency responders and concerned citizens, the 24-hour notification of a release is the only method we have for understanding what chemicals we are exposed to and how much. This is problematic for a number of reasons:

1. If the facility does not choose to report an incident, then the public has no way of knowing until they get sick or notice the effects on their surrounding area. Without accurate information, you cannot protect yourself or your family from being exposed to chemicals.
2. The 24-hour notifications, when they do happen, often give very little information on substance released, quantity released and the cause of the release. I have seen way too many reports that state “unknown substance released of an unknown quantity for an unknown cause.” How then can this information even be useful for effective emergency response?
3. 24 hours is still too much time between when the chemicals were released and when the public should know about it. Acute health effects from chemical exposure can certainly be experienced within 24 hours.
4. This lag time can lead to a lack of information or misinformation where there should be a public health advisory. Because the LDEQ and DHH did not inform the public until Aug. 15 about the fish advisory, there were media reports talking about the concerns of local residents collecting the dead fish and taking them home! This is exactly the kind of situation you want to avoid in a chemical emergency.
5. The lack of information from the facility can lead to chemical exposure among those hired to clean up the fish kill. If no one knows what exactly was released and how much, then there is little concern for using Personal Protective Equipment in clean up efforts.

We are completely dependent on the facilities for providing information about when something has been released, what it is and how much was released. This is problematic because their interest is more concerned about their profit margin than in protecting public health. In our experience and in the Temple-Inland accident, it is the citizen report based on observation that instigates an investigation not full disclosure by the company.

This is exactly what happened with the Temple-Inland disaster. The company did not notify the authorities. Residents on the river noticed the foam, foul smell and dead marine life and called the media. The media called the state. The media called the state senators. No one knew anything and we still don’t.

Our review of parish-level emergency response plans where there are petrochemical facilities has pointed out some serious gaps in planning that, if addressed, could lead to improved chemical emergency response:

  • LEPC plans do not include community representation or involvement in response activities.
  • LEPC plans do not include local environmental monitoring plans, so parish officials and residents have to wait for the LDEQ to perform sampling. This could take days.
  • LEPC plans do not detail how they will notify the public in the case of a chemical release.
  • LEPC plans make it difficult to know the locations of hazardous facilities in the parish and the names and numbers of individuals at those facilities to contact if they spot a problem.

The parish LEPCs can improve its planning and response in the following ways:

1. Involve residents in chemical emergency response planning because they know where the most vulnerable areas are and
2. Train residents in environmental monitoring and sampling because they are often the first people on the scene after an environmental crime has been committed and are the best people, if well trained, to document the pollution. Residents can assist with early warning and emergency notification of other residents.

For LDEQ:

1. We suggest perimeter/fenceline air and water monitoring to ensure that industry is adhering to permit limits and not in violation of the Clean Air or Clean Water Act.
2. Permit limits need to consider public health impacts using health surveys after petrochemical accidents. Work in partnership with the DHH, the Poison Control Centers and local community-based organizations.
3. Involve community groups in compliance and enforcement investigations. Good police rely heavily on community tips and the neighborhood watch. Residents can provide accurate information on the facilities’ accidents that cross the fenceline. Trust the public.

The hearing on Aug. 22 served to reassure me that Sen. J.P Morrell (District 3, which includes New Orleans) is actively trying to protect public health by scrutinizing the government agencies’ response to this disaster. He stated numerous times, “We never want this to happen again.” He was firm in his reproach of a number of state agencies, including those who are usually off the hook during chemical emergencies, such as the Departments of Health and Emergency Preparedness. He was especially firm with LDEQ, which was refreshing. LDEQ holds the keys to keeping industry in check and consistently is weak on protecting public health from toxic chemicals. The agency misses a lot of the warning signs leading up to catastrophic disasters like this one.

Then the moment we were all waiting for – the Temple-Inland paper mill representative took the stand. The poor man was grinding his teeth and sweating. He read his two-minute prepared statement that made it sound like they had broken no laws and waited for questions.

The senators had plenty of questions:

Q.  “How much was released and what was in it?”
A.  “I do not know.”
Q.  “What are you permitted to release and how much over was this particular upset?
A.  “I do not know.”
Q.  “Why didn’t your company notify any of the agencies on Aug. 9 when the release occurred?”
A.  “I do not know.”
Q.  “What kinds of management protocols are you going to change and what kinds of retrofits are you going to make to your facility in order to get the plant permitted to open again?”
A.  “I do not know.”

Temple-Inland sent their fall guy and would admit nothing. Sen. Morrell then joked that perhaps he could say nothing because we all signed affidavits before entering the proceedings, we were all under oath to tell the truth. A lawyer in the public comment period advised that the committee serve subpoenas to those responsible at Temple-Inland for the next hearing. The senate committee then moved to hold a second hearing in Slidell.

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4 Responses to Pearl River disaster response shows Louisiana still not prepared for emergencies

  1. I think LABB is one of the most authentic, engaged groups I know of. Keep going!

  2. janice oberry says:

    I called 911 twice on saturday prior to noon. they said proper authorities had been notified. i also called ldwf report a crime in progress number twice saturday august 13th. ldwf agents met me to collect two dead gulf sturgeons. they took pictures and done water test. again this was saturday aug 13th prior to noon! on monday morning i went to a launch and saw 3 generations fishing off the bank. the little boy to start kindergarden the next day. they had no idea till i instruccted them not to! Thanks

  3. anonymous says:

    They may never want this to happen again, but the papermill doesnot seem to have another alternative for emergency dumps. It seems by design, the LDEQ allowed this emergency route by issuing permits without first requiring appropriate containment for such events.

    Seems to be the same situation at the Meraux refinery in St. Bernard Parish. During rain events, oily wastewater is dumped into the neighborhood canals, rather than being contained and / or routed to the Mississippi river, which is the emergency route for nearby ExxonMobil Chalmette refining. Also, at the Meraux refinery, not only is the canal water not tested, no one instructs people to stop fishing the canals.

    Unlike the paper mill, which may not have an alternative emergency route readily available, the Meraux refinery could send emergency by-passes to the Mississippi River, which is larger than neighborhood canals. This would protect public health not only during events with inadequate rain water capacity, but also for other wastewater treatment malfunctions.

  4. Pingback: Temple-Inland skips out on second state Senate hearing | Louisiana Bucket Brigade Blog

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