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Hurricane Ida worsened Louisiana pollution, prompting calls for climate justice

Hurricane Ida unleashed rampant pollution in Louisiana, where environmental advocates are urging Congress to pivot the nation from its reliance on fossil fuels.

(CN) — Untreated sewage poured into the Mississippi River this week as black smoke spewed from refineries with disabled air monitors unable to record what toxins were being released. Across southeast Louisiana, environmental disasters abound as residents face the long road to recovery from Hurricane Ida.

Nearly two weeks after Ida made landfall as a Category 4 storm, shredding power lines and toppling a 400-foot transmission tower, more than 220,000 Louisianans do not have electricity in their homes.

With no internet access, some who did not evacuate may have been spared from seeing the U.S. Coast Guard’s announcement early this week that it is investigating 350 oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard does not yet know what company is responsible for a pipeline that leaked enough oil to form an 11-mile slick in Bay Marchand before divers placed a containment dome over it.

That’s just in the Gulf. On land, Ida tore up a region of Louisiana that’s home to one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical plants in the United States.

The Coast Guard’s National Response Center, which fields calls about pollution incidents, logged 55 reports from operators of refineries, chemical plants, power plants and dumps from Aug. 30 through Sept. 5.

But getting confirmation of the incidents from some of the named companies proved difficult.

On Aug. 30, 127 pounds of natural gas escaped from TotalEnergies’ chemical plant in Carville, Louisiana, according to the response center. But a TotalEnergies spokesman said Wednesday he “did not have any information to confirm any of that.”

Waste Management Inc. did not respond to inquiries about 5,000 gallons of wastewater that leaked at its dump in Sulphur, Louisiana, as listed in the response center’s logs.

Big Oil companies are also involved. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it is remotely monitoring air pollution emissions from a Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana, and an ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge.

Black smoke is reportedly spewing from Shell’s refinery, located in a region known as “cancer alley” because residents living near the area’s numerous industrial plants develop cancer at much higher rates than are typical for Americans.

Colette Pichon Battle, executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, said state and federal agencies do not communicate with residents about the health risks of such pollution on a normal day, let alone in the chaos following Ida.

“No one is really talking about the air quality, as they are talking about the heat that hit at least 113 [degrees Fahrenheit] heat index,” Battle said Thursday. She was speaking from Texas, where she is staying with family after evacuating from her home in St. Tammany Parish, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.

“When you put 113 degrees and toxic fumes inside of homes where people have to have their windows open because their electricity is down, what’s really happening?” Battle added. “I don’t think we’re communicating the impact of the emissions very well at all.”

Air monitoring sites in seven parishes — Louisiana’s administrative equivalent to most other states’ counties — did not have power as of Thursday morning, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

On a press call Thursday, Battle and other environmental activists said Ida has exposed the need for improvements in Louisiana’s and the nation’s energy grids.

They are urging the U.S. House of Representatives to approve a $1 trillion infrastructure bill the Senate passed in August in a rare show of bipartisan compromise.

The bill allocates $73 billion to modernize the nation’s electric grid, $7.5 billion to build charging stations for electric vehicles and $15 billion to replace lead water lines.

But Keya Chatterjee, executive director of the US Climate Action Network said it is just as important for Congress to approve a complementary $3.5 trillion spending plan, which includes progressive priorities such as climate policy and child care.

“What we’re talking about is saying, in the middle of dealing with this climate crisis, how do we really make a down payment that is going to allow us to change all of our infrastructure, our water infrastructure, our health infrastructure, our road and physical infrastructure, our public transportation infrastructure — make it electric, make it renewable — but also make sure we have safe housing for people, also make sure people have child care?” Chatterjee said on the call.

Chatterjee and Battle said microgrids, local grids that can work independently of regional electricity-transmission systems, powered by solar energy could avert the widespread outages Louisiana is experiencing.

Jessica Dandridge, executive director of the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans, said an issue not getting enough attention in the fallout from Ida is the vulnerability of the state’s water infrastructure.

As of Thursday afternoon, 25 public water systems that supply more than 30,000 people were still offline after suffering damages from Ida and 152 systems serving over 300,000 residents were under boil-water advisories, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

Ida knocked out power to several of the Sewarage and Water Board of New Orleans’ pumping stations, resulting in its release of untreated sewage into the Mississippi River.

“The same river we fish out of, the same river we use for recreational and business uses,” Dandridge said.

Anne Rolfes, director of the environmental group Louisiana Bucket Brigade, believes these disasters could be avoided if government agencies cracked down on corporate polluters.

“Massive spills and environmental disasters happen every time there is a hurricane or even a storm. It's not inevitable. It comes from a failure to prepare,” she said in an email.

“Year after year, our state Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA  let the oil gas and chemical industry get away with just dumping their pollution on all of us. This happened after Katrina, after Laura after storms that no one has heard of. Finally it seems to be getting more attention. Maybe now something will change,” she added.

(Courthouse News reporter Sabrina Canfield contributed to this report.)

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