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At Least 160 Environmental Damage Complaints Being Investigated After Hurricane Ida

Norco Shell Refinery Hurricane Ida
Shalina Chatlani/ Gulf States Newsroom
The Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana burns off excess gas post-Hurricane Ida in order to prevent an explosion. But, the result is clouds of rotten-smelling black smoke, Sept. 1, 2021.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is looking into at least 160 complaints or reports of possible environmental damage from utilities and chemical plants across the state that were in the path of Hurricane Ida.

Officials at the agency, however, said none of what has been reported so far requires immediate action.

Greg Langley, the DEQ’s press secretary, said the agency has assembled a team of emergency personnel within the agency to process all reports of environmental concern that have been submitted. The agency is also working with local police officials to go door-to-door for ground assessments in affected areas — already completing at least 90 visits.

As of Friday, there were 15 air monitoring stations that were reported to be without power or inaccessible. But, Langley said, many of those are back online as power has been restored to many parts of the state.

“When the power was interrupted, our men had to look to make sure nothing was damaged. Then when they start running, they might need to recalibrate to get an accurate reading from the front of the monitor,” Langley said. “We're in the process of doing all that. It's not an instantaneous fix. You've got to have boots on the ground.”

Langley said that the DEQ is also working with the EPA to do flyovers around sites that might have spills or other issues. Some sheening, smoke from fires and a few small spills have been seen by their crews, but Langley said the incidents are not considered major issues.

“They haven't had any excess chemical detections,” Langley said. “We didn't we didn't find anything that was above a level… that would cause us to take action to shut it down or remediate.”

The Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana is one utility that has already caused some concern. After Hurricane Ida pummeled into the state, the refinery spewed out black smoke from its stack bringing with it the smell of rotten eggs — a sign of sulfur emissions.

Langley said the plant is “just burning off the excess gas,” which is a “safety device so that they don’t have… an explosion.” But environmental experts, like Luke Metzger of Environment Texas, say these emissions absolutely “can be big enough to contribute to health problems.”

Langley said a more complete assessment of what the state is doing to monitor the environmental impacts of the storm will be up soon. A team is still assessing the state of utilities and the records gathered from their assessments..

“The people that do that upload records -- they've been off work naturally because most of the state offices have been closed,” Langley said. “Our people couldn't even get into work.”

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

Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.

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