Smoke rises from the Valero Oil refinery in Meraux on June 19, 2020. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
A proposal to require industrial air monitoring to protect Louisiana residents from chemical air pollutants cleared an early obstacle in the state legislature Tuesday.
Senate Bill 35, sponsored by Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, advanced from the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality in a 4-1 vote. The lone opposing vote came from Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales.
The measure would require certain industrial facilities to install air quality monitoring systems that measure and record pollutants and warn the public of hazardous releases. The systems would include real-time data collection and be able to disseminate that information to the public when chemical accidents and leaks pose a threat to public health.
The bill would apply to facilities defined as major sources under the federal Clean Air Act or the Louisiana Air Control Law. The facilities would have to cover the cost of installing the systems.
Many industrial plants already have such systems in place, but they are not required to share data with the public and don’t always immediately notify nearby communities when a leak occurs.
The committee’s bipartisan support for the bill came as a surprise to proponents who have been trying for years to get lawmakers to adopt it. The vote tally drew applause from many residents of the Mississippi River corridor known as Cancer Alley — most of them Black — who gathered after the meeting to thank Fields and take photos. Many of Cancer Alley’s industrial facilities are located in Black communities.
Fields said he has carried the bill for four years without any luck moving it through the legislative process.
“I’m just hopeful we can keep this momentum going,” he said in a post-meeting interview. “We’ve got big hurdles ahead. Industry is a big monster to reckon with, so to speak. And all this cost is on them, not on the state, and that’s the way it should be.”
Speaking in favor of the bill, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré told the committee how dozens of Iberville Parish residents were hospitalized with symptoms of chlorine poisoning from an industrial chemical leak just two weeks after Fields presented the same bill last year.
That incident occurred April 18, 2022, at the Dow Hydrocarbons complex. An Olin Chemical production unit leaked liquid chlorine that rapidly vaporized and threatened nearby homes.
Within about three hours of the incident, plant operators said residents no longer needed to shelter in place and gave statements that conflicted with reports from parish officials and first responders, according to an Advocate report.
“Everybody was listening to what the plant operator was saying that everything was inside the fence,” Honoré said. “Somehow that chlorine went to the security fence and never went past it — is what they were reporting.”
Honoré said a public air monitoring system would be able to provide real-time objective data that would eliminate the kind of confusion seen in Iberville Parish last year.
“It’s worth it for the safety of our people,” he said. “Nobody’s trying to put the plants out of business. We just want them to comply, and when something breaks, the community knows.”
Robert Berg, an industry lobbyist with the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, spoke against the bill, saying it is unnecessary because the Environmental Protection Agency is already proposing new regulations that would require such monitoring systems.
Fields said it should be a basic human right for people to know what’s in the air they’re breathing.
“As you know, people are dying from cancer in this state every day at a rate higher than any other,” Fields said. “It’s a simple bill. You should have the right to know what you breathe.”
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