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Louisiana sinkhole a concern for the entire state

4th September 2012   ·   0 Comments

“That sinkhole is a testament to the fact that the basic human rights to life and health are not protected under the laws and regulations we have for industrial operations.” — Monique Harden, Co-Director, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights

By J. Kojo Livingston
Contributing Writer

In Bayou Corne, 70 miles west of New Orleans as scary scenario is building. Weeks ago residents had their homes rocked with unexplained blasts. Also unexplained were the odors that filled the area. The trouble was traced to a salt dome that was being used by the company Texas Brine. Gas bubbles began to rise from a massive sinkhole caused by the collapse of the salt dome.

Now some experts are calling for a state of emergency because the sinkhole poses a threat to numerous nearby pipelines and a huge well that stores a large amount of liquid butane that some experts are saying could cause a blast equal to “100 Hiroshimas” or nuclear bombs. Add the presence of radioactive matter believed to be in the salt dome, you have a nightmare that can affect the lives of millions in this state.

At the heart of the issue has been the state’s refusal to hold big corporations accountable to using appropriate safety measures. The Sun spoke with New Orleans environmental lawyer and activist Monique Harden about the issue. Harden is the co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights and has a long track record of litigation and activism around environment justice in the area.

LA WEEKLY: What is the current situation in Bayou Corne?

HARDEN: People have been evacuated from their homes around Bayou Corne in Assumption Parish. The sinkhole is about the size of a football field and about 400 feet deep. It’s quite a massive sinkhole. It could be months on in months on end before any life or regular routine in terms of returning home can happen. It’s like the Katrina displacement but without a hurricane.

LA WEEKLY: How did it get to this point?

HARDEN: Folks are looking back and looking forward. There is evidence that shows by 2010 the company Texas Brine knew that there was a problem. By 2011 you have residents in the Bayou Corne area complaining of odors and gas bubbles from below ground. None of it sent the Department of Natural Resources into action. The future part is the potential for the sinkhole to damage fuel pipelines, to grow bigger what the state of the residents will be in terms of property, homes, family and community networks. It’s a real huge problem.

LA WEEKLY: Is this the result of a policy trend?

HARDEN: The BP disaster brought national attention to a situation where safety was never a priority. It took the lives of eleven people and tremendous repercussions for the Gulf Coast in terms of livelihoods and futures and the sustainability of the marine and coastal ecosystems. Here you have a situation where safety concerns are de-prioritized and it’s a problem that we have throughout Louisiana. When you have communities that close to an industrial operation, it should require safeguards and safety measures. We ignore the problems when the industrial operations start. We ignore the problems when they begin to show and now they can’t even be evacuated.

LA WEEKLY: Could this threat reasonably been prevented?

HARDEN: This is something that could have been prevented. In this state it seems like its part of the governing culture to ignore safety measures at industrial operations notwithstanding the proximity to where people live, where your children go to school, where you may work. None of that matters; allow the industrial facility to have a blank check to operate however it wants and when disastrous consequences occur then we’ll figure out some sort of game plan. And yet they get huge tax breaks, paying nothing into taxes that could fund schools and infrastructure, road roads, bridges etc. These things happen in countless environmental justice communities across the state. Safety is not a concern.

LA WEEKLY: Where do our elected officials come into play?

HARDEN: Before the formation of the sinkhole there were groups that asked the EPA to use a mandate in the Clean Air Act that gives them the authority to require industrial facilities to employ safety precautions and measures at their refineries, chemical plants, etc. This was in a written letter from a diverse group of environmental justice advocates, worker’s rights groups, labor unions, some elected officials from the national advisory group to the EPA. Both of our senators, Vitter and Landrieu co-authored a letter saying that they “strongly oppose EPA taking any action in this direction. Reducing the potential for catastrophic disaster is strongly opposed by our US Senators.

LA WEEKLY: How do they justify that position?

HARDEN: For them this is an easy step to take because this is the past 80 or 90 years of history in Louisiana with regard to industrial operations. But when you think about it, what was going on before the industrial operations, slave plantations. They certainly were able to call the shots and do what they wanted.

LA WEEKLY: Is this just a Bayou Corne problem?

HARDEN: A has hundreds of industrial facilities, 107 of them rank pretty high in terms of the most devastating effects to the larger population in size. For 107 plants there are 10,000 people who are put at risk from the operation if there is a worst case scenario. Each one puts 10,000 people at risk because of the radius and the reach of how those chemicals can move. Chlorine gas has a 25 mile radius of lethal impact to kill people or cause serious injury. Residents, people traveling on the road, children in school it doesn’t matter.

LA WEEKLY: What is happening to solve this problem?

HARDEN: They are trying to figure out how to fill in the sinkhole in a safe way and find out what caused it. They are investigating it and trying to figure out what other effects. The Department of Natural Resources is the regulatory authority over extracting the resources of underground salt domes just last week the Secretary of that department turned in his resignation. The governor needs to be all over this in terms of having communications with Bayou Corne, especially those who have been evacuated. What is unnerving is that the sinkhole could be the tip of the iceberg. I don’t think Gov. Jindal has done anything to show any leadership. He should be all over this.”

This article originally published in the September 3, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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