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Public Health Questions Persist As Pollution Data Lags Following Hurricane Laura

Louisiana Sea Grant
Oil on a beach on Grand Isle, Louisiana. June 7, 2010.

The Environmental Protection Agency said none of the chemical and oil spills in Texas caused by Hurricane Laura are emitting dangerous levels of chemicals. Reports are not yet in for facilities in Louisiana.

The Coast Guard’s National Response Center received 31 reports of spills and releases.

The EPA deployed planes equipped with air monitors to fly over Beaumont and Port Arthur over the weekend. In a press release, officials said that “overall, hazardous impacts to air quality … have been limited.”

The units sampled for dichloroethene, trichloroethene, tetrachloroethene, benzene, toluene and xylene. They detected isoprene at two locations west of Port Arthur. Isoprene is a carcinogen and can irritate the nose, throat and lungs, according to the National Institutes of Health. Exposure can cause headache, dizziness, lightheadedness and fainting.

It is not currently clear what pollution threats might exist in southwestern Louisiana because widespread monitoring is not yet taking place.

According to Gregory Langley, spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, the department will deploy two mobile air monitoring laboratories on Wednesday.

But advocates say that’s not soon enough. Darryl Malek-Wiley, with the Sierra Club, called it “unacceptable.”

The LDEQ said it’s routine procedure to shut down monitors before a storm, due to power outages, but Malek-Wiley said they should have deployed mobile monitoring immediately after the storm.

“It’s a day late and a dollar short,” he said. “They should have been there within 48 hours. As we saw during Hurricane Katrina, you need to have this information so you can tell the public about potential dangers.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a shelter-in-place order for the area around a chlorine plant in Westlake after a fire broke out there last week. The EPA helped the state conduct air quality tests after the incident and the order was lifted Friday.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality deployed a van outfitted with testing equipment on Friday and has been providing constant updates on air quality since then.

The department is testing for hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, benzene, toluene, styrene, and 1,3-butadiene near industrial facilities in Beaumont, Port Arthur, Port Neches and Groves.

“LDEQ should be able to do the same kind of analysis but they haven’t,” Malek-Wiley said.

Langley said the agency dida flyover Sunday and noted several oil sheens on the coast, but did not yet have data to share. He said the agency’s main priority was immediate cleanup efforts, and directed the public to the agency’s website for information on debris cleanup.

When asked why the EPA had deployed testing units in Texas but provided limited data on Louisiana, a spokesperson said Tuesday that the “EPA has not been requested to conduct air monitoring in Louisiana.”

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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