The Absurdity of “No Off-site Impact”

katiecloseupKatie Moore, Research Analyst

My name is Katie Moore, and I’m the new Research Analyst here at the Bucket Brigade.  On Thursday of last week I went on my first deployment to Baton Rouge as a member of our Emergency Response Team to talk with community members about ongoing pollution and encourage them to report any pollution they experience to the iWitness Pollution Map.

In my first week here at LABB, I’ve seen pollution primarily from the refineries’ perspectives.  Part of my job as Research Analyst involves reading through the accident reports refineries are required to submit to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the National Response Center after a pollution release.  There’s a lot of jargon in these reports, and a lot of fancy footwork to try and down play the impact of their accidents.  One of the questions commonly included is whether the accident caused any off-site impact.  Of all the reports I’ve read so far, there hasn’t been a single one that admitted impacting nearby neighborhoods.

There’s clearly a different story on the ground in Baton Rouge. The Standard Heights community is sandwiched between multiple plants – Honeywell to the north, a waste oil refinery to the south, and ExxonMobil’s refinery and chemical plant (the third largest refinery in the nation) to the east.

Talking to people in the neighborhood, it quickly became clear that the question is not ‘have you experienced pollution’, but rather ‘how often have experienced pollution this week’. Nearly everyone we spoke with had their lives interrupted by pollution on a regular basis.  People told us about getting headaches and feeling nauseous, keeping their families inside to avoid pollution and odors so strong that they could smell them in their homes.  I was struck by how impacted the community is by the industry surrounding it, and the efforts people have to take to protect themselves from pollution they are not causing.

The story that stuck with me the most from the deployment came from a community member who told us about getting a circulatory system infection after a large spill last year.  He said that he knew why he got sick: he cut his grass the day after the accident and didn’t wear a mask. Normally, he told us, if he’s outside for several hours he wears a face mask to keep from breathing in the pollution, but on this particular day he didn’t and felt certain that was what caused him to get sick.  I was hit with the absurdity of it all.  That people in this neighborhood, and in others like it across the state, aren’t able to even be outside on their own property and in their own communities without having to protect themselves against industry pollution.

That’s what happens when industry denies the impact its pollution is having.  Checking a box on a report saying that there is no off-site impact, does not magically make that true.  The people living in these communities feel an impact every day.  What it does do is place the burden on the community to protect itself – to stay inside, to wear masks – to pick up the check physically, mentally and financially for the pollution the surrounding industry is causing.

The deployment to Baton Rouge was valuable to me for a lot of reasons.  It was great to be able to meet people from one of the communities we work with and to hear their experiences of living so close to industry.  It was also really important for me to see the difference between how industry talks about pollution in the reports I read every day and what the reality of that pollution is in Standard Heights.  That discrepancy is really at the center of the work we do here at LABB, and it is crucial to shed light on it and work with communities to make sure the real off-site impact is documented.

After the day was over, we had nine new citizen reports to the iWitness Pollution Map and had saved the iWitness Pollution Map number to 27 phones.  The map is a valuable tool for communities to document the impacts oil refineries have on the health of their neighborhoods.  I encourage anyone who is affected by industrial pollution in Louisiana to report to the map, by calling or texting 504-272-7645 every time you see, smell, hear or feel pollution.  That way, communities across the state can demonstrate that there is an off-site impact from the oil industry’s dirty practices.

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