From the moment New Orleans’ filthy floodwaters were pumped into Lake Pontchartrain, regulators said environmental rules had to be set aside to save the Gulf Coast from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.
Federal and state agencies waived environmental laws regulating open burning. They waived the laws regulating asbestos removal. They waived rules for landfills, gasoline and diesel fuel standards, and water and air pollution — all in the name of recovery and rebuilding.
Meanwhile, Louisiana’s U.S. senators pushed for long-term waivers of environmental laws in hurricane-hit states to quicken rebuilding, tacking the proposal onto a stalled $250 billion rebuilding plan presented to Congress.
Mostly, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, the waivers were harmless. But some say they went too far, padding the pockets of oil companies and creating long-term environmental hazards.
“What these waivers represent is the government waiving protections of the public’s health,” said Adam Babich, director of Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic. “A lot of this seems to be happening under the radar without any public participation.”
In Louisiana, the waivers and variances to permits came fast and furious after Katrina hit Aug. 29, DEQ documents show. More exceptions were issued a month later after Hurricane Rita.
Some waivers, like the one that allows the burning of dead animal carcasses, appeared harmless. But many others have raised questions.
Refineries and emissions
Records show the oil industry was quick to seek and receive waivers and exceptions from state and federal agencies. EPA said it would use “discretion” in its enforcement of emissions at refineries because of the gasoline shortage throughout the nation.
Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at EPA and longtime whistleblower within the agency, said EPA’s move to allow refineries to take longer to report emissions and not comply with environmental rules helped the companies make the record profits.
“The bottom line is everyone is taking major hits across the country except for one sector that’s become a profit center, and that’s not right, that’s not American,” Kaufman said.
Darrin Mann, a DEQ spokesman, said the permits did not allow the refineries “to go hog wild” and emit large amounts of pollutants. Instead, DEQ says the waivers were needed so the refineries could work through kinks their systems when they were shut down by the storms.
EPA and DEQ officials have said that air monitors have shown no problems with air quality at the refineries. But Anne Rolfes, a Louisiana activist, insists that EPA tests after Katrina showed high levels of benzene near oil refineries.
“We’re asking the neighbors of these refineries to put up with a lot of increased risk, increased fears and increased noise from these refineries so that we can enjoy the benefits of cheaper gasoline,” Babich said.
Landfill and leaching
Meanwhile, environmentalists are challenging state regulators for sending much of the waste from gutted homes and businesses in New Orleans to an old city landfill that is not lined to keep contaminants from leaching out.
The trucks hauling debris into the landfill are inspected from towers at the dump’s entrance, but there are concerns that contractors are trucking in paint, household cleaners and chemicals by hiding the hazardous material at the bottom of their loads.
Similar questions abound. In hard-hit Plaquemines Parish, waste is being burned 24 hours a day and mounds of debris will be bulldozed into unlined pits.
“To get businesses and communities back and running, you have to kind of bend the rules to a certain extent, but not to the point where you are creating a situation where’s it’s unsafe for people,” said William Serpas, the parish’s director of public service.
Out in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Marine Fisheries Service waived the requirement that shrimpers use devices on their nets that let sea turtles escape. The agency said debris littering the Gulf made the devices impractical.
On land, a Georgia-Pacific paper mill was allowed to burn petroleum coke because of a shortage of natural gas. A chemical factory was given the go-ahead to dispose of a petroleum byproduct stuck in a storage tank by burning it off in a flare.
In the marshes, officials got rid of oil spills from broken pipelines by burning it off. Oil well operators hit by the storm were allowed to vent gas from their wells and move oil without filling out the usual paperwork.
‘Winging it’ mentality
The bottom line, many say, was getting the job done.
“We’re kind of winging it,” said Jeff Morgan, an independent debris removal inspector. He said Louisianans are “head-headed” people who “don’t want to be told how to do it.”
Michael Wascom, an environmental law expert at Louisiana State University, said the waivers were mostly limited in duration and related to an emergency.
“I don’t see anything scandalous in there,” Wascom said. “They all seem fairly innocuous and limited to their sites.”
But environmentalists worry. “We should do it right now rather than paying more money in the future to clean it up,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club’s Delta Chapter.
And Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said regulators need to ensure that companies did not take advantage of the waivers and that when the next catastrophic hurricane hits, industries are better prepared.
“I understand that we may need to run around and do these deals,” he said, “but the system has to shift.”