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Coastal News Roundup: Pope's Climatologist Pays A Visit, And More

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Father Eduardo Scarel, left, shakes hands with Pope Francis. Father Scarel is an atmospheric scientist and climatologist to the Pope. He visited New Orleans on February 12, 2019.

This week on the Coastal News Roundup: an update on a two stories -- the giant reservoir of acidic wastewater threatening to spill in St. James Parish, and the invasive plant choking up Bayou St. John.

Nola.com/Times-Picayune reporter Sara Sneath tells WWNO’s Travis Lux about the latest with those stories, and about the visit paid to the state by Pope Francis’ climatologist.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity:

Q: A few weeks ago, news broke that 700 million of gallons of acidic wastewater were at risk of spilling at an industrial site in St. James Parish. That’s about the equivalent of 1,000 olympic-sized swimming pools. What's the latest?

The industrial site is owned by a company called Mosaic, which makes agricultural fertilizer at the plant, and this wastewater is just one of the byproducts. State and federal agencies have been asking the plant for more information about how they plan to keep the acidic wastewater contained on the site. As a side note, the wastewater has a pH of 2, which is capable of killing adult fish. The plant has informed these agencies that it’s plugged culverts on its site, built a berm, and could use lime make the wastewater less acidic. Essentially, they’re building things to contain it in case it spills, and they’re trying to change the acidity of the water in case it spills.

Q: Any feeling about whether it’ll break? Are we closer to knowing the answer to that question?

I don’t know that we really are -- I was able to find out this information through documents that are going back and forth between the federal agencies and the plant. I think the precautions that the plant is taking show that the situation is very serious. And the fact that these state and federal agencies are asking for so many details means that they’re taking it pretty seriously too.

Q: You’ve also got an update on the plant growing in Bayou St. John. It’s been floating up and down the bayou for a few weeks now, and has been identified as an invasive plant called giant salvinia. What’s the latest on the effort to clean it up?

About 35 volunteers came out to the bayou last Saturday to remove the plant with fishnets and rakes. A lot of it has been removed already, but there still is some left to be removed, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says they’re going to spray some herbicide to kill the plant between Lake Pontchartrain and Robert E. Lee Blvd.

They say that it’s unlikely that the plant would ever be eradicated from the bayou completely because of just how quickly it can spread. They’re asking for volunteers to come out again this weekend to help clean it up.

Q: Let’s move on to the Catholic Church. This week, the Pope’s climatologist was in New Orleans to speak to Catholic students. The current pope -- Pope Francis -- has been outspoken over the years on climate issues. He issued a big encyclical a few years ago saying that humans have contributed to climate change and have a moral obligation to combat it. I knew that, but I did not know that the Pope has his own climatologist. My first question is, why does the Pope have his own climatologist?

Yeah, that was my first question for Father Eduardo, who is the Pope’s climatologist. He’s from Argentina, and in addition to being a priest he’s also an atmospheric scientist. Here’s what he had to say:

FATHER EDUARDO: “Because the care for the environment -- the care for nature -- requires [us] to see the state of the planet. And the tools of science provide the best way to see.”

Eduardo framed the church’s role in addressing climate change in terms of caring for the planet, which he considers to be a gift from God. He also believes that it’s a matter of social justice.


You can hear the Coastal News Roundup every Friday at 7:45am and 4:44pm.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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