The Devil in Devil’s Swamp

By Raleigh Keagan, LABB Member Action Associate

On a Monday afternoon in Alsen, Louisiana, individuals came together to discuss possible paths forward from a polluted history. Cramped in a small meeting room (converted from its regular usage as a kitchen), in an old community center next to the basketball court, residents from the surrounding neighborhood met with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), and members from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB).

These meetings are held to discuss the transition of Devil’s Swamp into a Superfund site. According to the report from a previous meeting, referred to as “Tier 1”, numerous facilities have occupied the land next to the man-made swamp, including Schuykill Metals, Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical, Union Tank Car, and more. Since 1971, there has been regularly dumping of toxins and contaminants directly into the swamp.[1] EPA representative Shuler commented on this during the meeting, bluntly stating that “there is a history of contaminants being discharged into Devil’s Swamp.” There has been documentation of contamination since 1980.[1]

An Advisory Warning for fish consumptions has been in place since 1987, as issued from both LDEQ and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (LDHH). “…Fish tissue samples that were analyzed exceeded human health levels for PCBs [which is 2 ppm], hexachlorobenzene (HCB), and hexachloro-1, 3-butadiene (HCBD). These are indeed chemicals that are carcinogenic to human health and are toxic to the environment.”1 Follow-up documentation went on to say the advisory on fish consumption recommended “…no more than 2 meals per month.”[1]

Not only are these suggestions outrageous given the culture, environment, and economic characteristics of this community, they were not well conveyed to individuals living in the area. A member of the community commented: “I never reviewed those documents you were talking about [discussing the fish advisory] because, first, I didn’t know they were there; and second I didn’t know I needed to. You don’t know what you don’t know.” These “protection” agencies are starting to have more of a reputation of ignoring our needs than helping us reach them. A lack of oversight, general concern, and adequate information has crippled these agencies from performing successfully.

Community members requested specialists to get more precise answers, and to help the public better understand the legal and medical reports from the numerous studies done. They asked for a cancer study of the area, to give a basis for the affected health of community members. LABB Program Manager Anna Hrybyk warned the community of the potential dangers of asking a government agency, such as the Center for Disease Control, to perform such a study. “They often use data already collected, often from LDEQ, which won’t have accurate information. The worst thing that could happen would be to go through all of the trouble of organizing a study, and for it to come back and show nothing is wrong.” She encouraged community members to design their own study, and work with an independent organization, possibly a university.

One of the most disheartening things about this meeting was the run-around answers all of the officials gave. When a resident asked what they should do if they don’t get a response from the EPA, they were told to contact LDEQ. An LDEQ representative then told the individual to get in touch with DHH, or the Army Corps of Engineers, or to speak with their local representative. It seemed as if all of the agencies in place to help communities in this situation were simply there to tell people where else they could go for assistance. No one was offering direct help. How did the system become so convoluted?

The meeting ended with a promise for more. An advisory committee was created, consisting of representatives from the community, interested individuals, and even some members from LABB. The group will meet next Monday to take a more in-depth look at the issues, answer some of the questions posed, and try to identify possible plans of action to present to the larger group when they re-convene. If you would like to learn more, or take a look at the draft report of the Tier 1 meeting, please contact our Member Action Associate at Raleigh@labucketbrigade.org.


[1] United States. Environmental Protection Agency. Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study. (2012). Report for Community Meeting- March 5, 2012.

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