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Louisiana chemical plants make improvements in emissions

Kim Chatelain, Special

In the late 1980s, when the federal government began tabulating industrial emissions being released into the environment, Louisiana’s petrochemical plants were emitting hundreds of millions of pounds of hazardous wastes at sites across the state. It was an era when technology and governmental oversight were not what they are today.

By 2018, the state’s chemical plants had reduced their emissions by more than 75 percent, according to statistics tabulated by the Louisiana Chemical Association (LCA) from the federal Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).

The vast improvement of the state’s air quality in the past three decades is a story that has been overshadowed during the environmental community’s clamorous campaign to drive petrochemical plants out of business in a quest to clean the state’s air and water, industry leaders say.

A disproportionate amount of discourse and media coverage tilted in favor of the environmentalists has put an industry vital to the state’s economy and one that seeks to be a partner in the effort to reduce pollution on the defensive, according to the head of the LCA, which represents the interests of 66 chemical manufacturing companies in Louisiana.

“The environmental community has done a good job of sensationalizing the issue of emissions and air quality,” said Greg Bowser, a former LSU football standout who was appointed president of the chemical association in 2016. “They (environmentalists) have tried to create their own narrative without the support of statistics or science.”

Bowser and other industry leaders point to the TRI as evidence of how petrochemical plants have significantly improved through the years. First proposed by a New York Times op-ed piece and established by Congress in 1986, the inventory mandates that chemical, mining, oil and gas and other industries that produce toxic chemical emissions above certain thresholds report the discharges to a database operated under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the years that followed the Congressional action, statistics point to a dramatic improvement in air quality. By 2003, the amount of pollutants released into the air had dropped by more than 80 percent in both Louisiana and the United States as a whole, according to the TRI data.

Bowser acknowledged that the amount of emissions in the state has risen slightly since 2003, a blip that is being watched closely by both the industry and environmental watchdogs. However, as of 2018, the latest year for which numbers are available, the toxic releases from chemical plants remain 75 percent less than in the 1980s.

Bowser and others in the petrochemical business said that fact has been lost in a barrage of anti-industry rhetoric that has distorted the actual condition of the environment relative to the time when the state’s air and water were much worse.

The industry’s position was supported by Dr. Chuck Carr Brown, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, who told the state Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in May that air quality has improved drastically, adding that the state is poised to become one of only 15 states in the United States to meet every EPA purity measure.

“What that means is that we’re breathing some of the cleanest air since the industrial revolution,” Brown told the committee.

Those sentiments stand in stark contrast to charges from environmentalists and some living near the state’s many chemical plants and oil refineries. They claim air emissions from the industrial sites have led to an unusually high number of cancer cases, birth defects and other health issues for those in the vicinity of the plants.

And, the plants are plentiful. The chemical association includes 66 member companies that operate more than 100 sites throughout Louisiana.

State officials and industry leaders say the environmental community has not been able to produce data to support its despairing claims. They say statistics from the Louisiana Tumor Registry, a central repository run by Louisiana State University that collects cancer diagnoses and deaths attributed to cancer, show no significant elevated rates of the disease in areas near plants.

Other studies have failed to provide a direct link between health issues and emissions from plants. There has not yet been any definitive data supporting the “Cancer Alley” designation for the area along the river, health officials have said. Meanwhile, the environmental community continues its research in hopes of providing an elusive scientific link between the plants and the maladies of nearby residents.

Bowser and others say the petrochemical industry has invested much effort and made great progress in its quest to lessen the amount of toxic discharges from plants. Major improvements in technology, such as emission control devices and methodology that allow plants to measure their releases in parts per trillion rather than the previous standard of parts per million, have made a big difference in the fight against pollution, he said.

To illustrate how precise the release measuring systems are now, consider this analogy. One part per million would be the equivalent of one inch in 16 miles. One part per trillion would amount to one inch in 250 miles.

While the industry is making great strides in its battle to improve emissions, leaders say it is losing the public relations war. The dozens of companies that are part of the chemical association must do a better job of telling the other side of the story, a buried tale of what the industry brings to the state’s economy, its people and the future, Bowser said.

That starts with the massive economic benefit. There are nearly 30,000 chemical industry employees in Louisiana that live and work in communities their companies call home. Their health and wellbeing – along with that of their neighbors – is of upmost concern to the industry as a whole, leaders say.

A study released in 2018 by Loren C. Scott and Associates reported that in 2017 the chemical industry generated more than $1.1 billion in taxes and fees for the state treasury. Of that, about $950 million went to local governments, enough to pay salaries for 40 percent of the state’s approximately 20,000 public school teachers.

It also showed that the weekly wage at Louisiana chemical plants - which exceeds $2,000 a week - is 52 percent higher than what is offered in other manufacturing sectors.

While petrochemical plants are clustered along the Mississippi River, the study found that 53 of the state’s 64 parishes have at least some employment in the industry.

“Our member companies’ employees want the same things their neighbors want,” Bowser said. “They want safe and clean neighborhoods, good schools and a strong economy. They want to be good neighbors in addressing the issues that affect their communities – environment, health and safety, security, workforce development.”

Don Pierson, the state’s secretary of economic development, said process industries that include chemical manufacturers constitute one of Louisiana’s nine key industries for economic development attraction, retention and growth.

“The economic importance of this industry to Louisiana is considerable,” Pierson said. “Chemical production sites can lead to eight additional indirect jobs, in the area economy, for each direct job on the plant site, according to economic impact studies. Major Louisiana investments by manufacturing companies help drive innovation in our economy and provide quality career opportunities for our workers.”

Bowser, who hails from the small St. Mary Parish community of Baldwin, said he feels the environmental community has an agenda that includes doing away with chemical manufacturing in the state, rather than making the industry cleaner. Running plants out of town would leave a major void in a state struggling to stay afloat.

“But they’re not going to be there to help the community get back on its feet if that happens,” he said. “They believe it can be taken away and ‘you’ll just figure it out.’”

Instead, the chemical industry can be a leader in improving the environment by helping produce eco-friendly and life improving products, such as pacemakers and lightweight aircraft materials that will help reduce fuel consumption.

Bowser said he hopes the chemical industry can clarify many misconceptions about its place on the state’s landscape by being more transparent and less modest about its achievements.

“We’ve made tremendous progress, but we didn’t talk about it,” Bowser said. “We’ve been focused on meeting regulations, but we also have to start talking to our communities and letting them know what’s going on inside of our plants. We need an open dialog. Get to know us, ask the tough questions and get to where the science takes you.”