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Measuring the impact of regulations and enforcement actions can be difficult, particularly as the benefits of such actions can take years to accrue. On the other hand, it’s often possible to observe the consequences of lax or nonexistent enforcement playing out in real time.
Take for example, the series of explosions that occurred at a Dow Chemical plant in Plaquemine, Louisiana last Friday. The explosions, which occurred in an area of the chemical plant that handles ethylene oxide, a flammable and toxic chemical and known carcinogen, are a direct result of lenient government enforcement of regulations designed to protect the public from corporate wrongdoing and environmental racism.
As WWNO reported, the scenes in Plaquemine on Friday were apocalyptic: “At least six explosions occurred late Friday night at the sprawling Dow’s 883-acre complex that manufactures a variety of chemicals, sending a mushroom cloud into the air” and causing fires that took hours to be put out. Investigations into the environmental impact are ongoing, and it’s not yet clear whether any ethylene oxide was emitted. Regardless, the explosions and health impacts on Plaquemine residents are part of a longstanding pattern of corporate abuse enabled by decades-long neglect by state and federal governments.
Life-Threatening Pollution Isn’t New to Plaquemine….
Plaquemine is part of a region of Louisiana nicknamed “Cancer Alley”—a stretch of the Mississippi River where significantly elevated risks of cancer from air pollution, due to emissions of carcinogens by petrochemical plants, have been calculated in the region’s predominantly Black and poor communities. According to EPA data on “air toxics cancer risk,” as Diana Kruzman observed last year in Grist, “nearly every census tract between Baton Rouge and New Orleans […] has a higher cancer risk from toxic air pollution than 95 percent of the country.” Recent research has gone even further, beginning to establish a direct link between these elevated risks and disproportionately high incidences of cancer among residents.
Last week’s explosions are just the latest instance of toxic chemicals threatening to poison the region’s residents. By itself, the Dow complex in Plaquemine has a history of Clean Air Act violations, with noncompliance reported by the EPA in every quarter over the last three years, and the Olin unit alone has had five leaks of toxic chlorine gas since 2015. One notably massive leak in 2016 “emitted an estimated 700 pounds of chlorine gas,” according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). And leaks have only gotten worse since then. An April 2022 leak exceeded that record, resulting in 6,512 pounds of chlorine gas being released.
Compounding the harm of the leak itself, an Olin Chemical subsidiary was found to have broken emergency reporting laws by initially under-reporting the levels of chlorine in the air recorded by Dow Chemical’s own sensors in the wake of the massive leak. As The Advocate reported, “One monitor inside the Dow complex […] found levels of chlorine more than six times what Dow officials had told DEQ was the peak concentration of the gas and 25 times the state’s action level for chlorine.” [emphasis added]
These lies led to Iberville Parish lifting a shelter-in-place order designed to protect residents from toxic airborne chemicals far too early. In the wake of this incident, Louisiana state officials said “at least 39 people went to area hospitals with mostly mild symptoms from the leak.”
….& Neither is Lax Enforcement of Environmental and Civil Rights Protections
This corporate abuse of the environment and local residents is part of a clear pattern that is horrifying, but unsurprising. What’s shocking is how negligent federal and state efforts to protect residents have been, both historically and in response to the recent explosions.
After the 2022 Olin chlorine leak, Louisiana’s DEQ, EPA, and OSHA opened investigations into the facility’s under-reporting of emissions levels. However, DEQ did not respond to questions about whether they would also investigate Dow Chemical, the owner and operator of the larger complex containing the Olin facility, despite the fact that they provide air monitoring services for the subsidiary. Apparently, according to The Advocate,
“Though state law provides for costly penalties over environmental violations, DEQ doesn’t often use the full extent of that fining authority; officials have said they favor encouraging companies get into compliance.” [emphasis added]
To date, according to our review of the DEQ’s “Enforcement” records, investigations appear to be ongoing, with no clear consequences yet imposed by the state of Louisiana for Olin’s pollution and lies. (Alabama did take civil legal action over the chlorine leak, forcing the Olin subsidiary responsible to pay $80,000 in civil fines in July 2022, to the state’s Department of Environmental Management—still a tiny amount compared to Olin’s ~$2B in annual profits.)
To add insult to injury, the EPA released a report stating that based on the size of the leak, the emitted chlorine gas could not have resulted in the respiratory symptoms residents reported, in direct contradiction to the actual lived experiences of residents and the hospital visits the state reported.
EPA’s underwhelming enforcement efforts in the region have continued in the wake of these repeated incidents. In fact, just two and half weeks before last week’s Dow explosions, the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly ended an environmental justice investigation into “Cancer Alley,” caving to GOP pressure after a lawsuit from Louisiana’s Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has received significant campaign contributions from oil companies (including Chevron) and the fossil fuel-defending Koch Industries.
Crack Down on Corporate Abuses By Enforcing Existing Laws—And Reject Industry-Funded GOP Pressure Campaigns
By attempting to work alongside massive corporations and “encourage” them to get into compliance—rather than using existing laws to force companies to pay up when they pollute the environment and create racist health disparities in surrounding communities—state and federal regulators are contributing to environmental and health crises.
It’s crucial for further protections to be implemented to address historical patterns of environmental racism, like the measures EPA was considering suggesting before dropping its “Cancer Alley” investigation, which included “requir[ing] state regulators to assess whether a community is already exposed to disproportionately high levels of pollution before permitting new plants [to be constructed] there.”
However, until such regulations are passed, enforcing existing regulations already on the books is the least regulators can do. Dropping investigations into corporate abuses when fossil fuel-backed GOP personnel apply pressure is unacceptable. If corporations know they won’t face material consequences for seeking massive profits at the expense of communities and ecosystems, why would they stop?
Biden administration officials must use environmental and workplace safety regulations to crack down on corporate wrongdoing, picking fights with corporate villains like Dow and Olin rather than backing down at the slightest hint of partisan pushback. These corporations are literally poisoning people and then lying to regulators and the public about it—the media narratives and enforcement actions practically write themselves.
Even when massive explosions and emissions don’t lead directly and visibly to the deaths of workers and residents, allowing corporations to pollute communities with impunity over time contributes to the high rates of cancer and other racist environmental impacts that Louisiana residents along the Mississippi have been battling for years.
There are direct human and environmental costs to officials’ inaction—it’s long past time for Biden officials to use their legal powers to protect people and the planet, rather than voluntarily letting corporations off the hook. With last week’s explosions, state and federal agencies have a chance to show us they can do better; they should seize the opportunity.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:
Image Credit: “Cancer Alley Louisiana” by Wikipedia User patapsco is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.