In Louisiana, the burden of regulating our air and water quality repeatedly falls to the citizens. The Game Over Formosa team has been working to capture the impact of air pollution on community members by matching ambient air quality data to first-hand reports from people on the ground.
Yet, even when data is collected and reported alongside accounts of rancid odors, garnering a meaningful response from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) remains difficult.
A recent auditor's report "found that the time it took for the LDEQ to issue enforcement actions after a known violation more than doubled between fiscal year 2015 and 2019, from nearly 10 months to nearly 20 months," according to a recent piece by ProPublica.
To respond to complaints of odors from pollution, DEQ will need perhaps 1,000 reports. Filing this many complaints is a heavy lift in rural areas. And, in "Cancer Alley," each parish contains dozens of plants. To complicate matters further, residents may not even be able to identify which plant is causing the odor.
In highly populated urban areas, residents have a leg up. Thousands of citizens may be impacted by any one industrial site that is emitting pollution or seeking a permit. Thus, it is easier for community leaders to generate the volume of comments and calls necessary for a response from DEQ. For example, in the nearby city of New Orleans, residents of the Irish Channel neighborhood quickly filed thousands of complaints of odors emitted from Blackwater Terminals facility, right across the river. And DEQ responded, with a lengthy investigation.
Yet, in the rural river parishes outside of the city, odors are routine and complaints are further between. Far fewer residents and far more plants mean that those who do complain quickly become burnt out.
Advocates can help lift the burden, by understanding the realities of rural citizens, and helping those who live near plants to understand complaint procedures.
For example, our colleague at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic notes that, although many residents of St. James Parish do not have internet access, a phone call is still a good and effective option for filing a complaint. For those who do have internet, advocates can print yard signs or flyers with QR codes that link to the LDEQ complaint website. Other advocates have supported those Cancer Alley by offering to make phone calls and file complaints on their behalf.
The Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Coalition suggests taking complaints straight to the EPA, should local-level authorities fail to respond.
To file a complaint, residents should include the name of the plant, and the AI number if possible, so that LDEQ has more authority to investigate and even enter the facility.
That's why, in the coming months, we will be collaborating with our colleagues at EarthJustice to create a Reporting Guide. The guide will include a list the names, AI numbers, and exact locations, of every plant in St. James parish, to help residents identify which plant may be causing a particular odor and provide as much information as possible to DEQ. It will use insights from the Louisiana Environmental Action Network's Citizen's Guide and Tulane Environmental Law Clinic's Citizen's Guide to streamline explanations of different reporting mechanisms.
We look forward to sharing our work!