Through some miraculous sense of cosmic irony, Louisiana is poised to become a global leader in fossil fuel production while also maintaining one of the most delicate and unique ecosystems in the world.
The state has found itself in a precarious position – its decisions today and in the coming days could spell disaster or prosperity for the state and its people.
The ongoing Legislative Session, which began on Monday and will conclude in July, will make the first of these many choices, though none of them will be made easily. The pressure for more restrictions on oil and gas companies tied to propagating pollution and coastal erosion has always been countered with promises of grievous economic consequences, but a certain group of activists say that trade off will do no good in the long term.
The Green Army, lead by Lieutenant General (retired) Russell Honoré, occupied the steps of the Capitol Building on Saturday to tell lawmakers they need to wake up.
“What will happen in the next couple months behind these doors will determine if we’re going to lead Louisiana looking through the rear-view mirror or the windshield,” said Honoré. “We want to send the message that water is important to Louisiana; it’s who we are. We’ve been part of the U.S. for 201 years for one reason: that river over there – the Mississippi River.”
A native of Lakeland in Pointe Coupee parish, Honoré is something of a folk hero in Louisiana. “The Ragin’ Cajun” gained fame in 2005 for his ability to coordinate search and rescue efforts during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and focusing the efforts of Joint Task Force Katrina on helping civilians. He has a reputation for being a loudmouth, but a loudmouth that gets things done. After retiring from the Army in 2008, Honoré travelled speaking on his efforts in New Orleans and encouraging an attitude of preparedness until he was approached by victims of the Bayou Corne sinkhole. A series of similar events between then and now have convinced Honoré that not enough is being done to protect Louisiana’s coast, waterways and natural resources.
The Green Army was formed to change that.
“Mother nature gave us the largest swamp and estuary coastline in America. For too long, this blessing has been left unprotected by laws that were in existence before any of our leaders were born – that needs to change,” said Honoré. “We’re the fourth producer of energy in the country, but not on the top of any other list. All we want is for companies to come here, make jobs, work hard, fix what they break and clean up after themselves.”
Hundreds of activists at the rally heard testimony from experts, activists and victims on the devastating effects that the “callous operations”of oil and gas companies have had on the environment. Wilma Subra, who Honoré calls the Green Army’s secret weapon, is an environmental scientist who, along with being the head of an environmental consulting firm, has the uncanny ability to “make people shut up and listen.”
“Louisiana has an abundance of surface and groundwater resources, but the quantity and quality of these resources are threatened,” said Subra. “Industrial facilities in Louisiana discharge more than 12.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals into these reserves every year, and are increasing at a rate of 20 percent a year. We need to do something about that.”
According to Subra, the largest quantity of these pollutants are from petroleum facilities, paper mills, fertilizer manufacturers and electric generating facilities – all of which can be found in almost every parish across the state. Aside from contaminating water, these substances have accumulated up the food chain into the several fish species, reptiles and shellfish that we like to eat.
“This bioaccumulation has happened to the point that there are consumption advisories within 53 of our 64 parishes to not eat the fish,” said Subra. “Calcasieu, Catahoula, Evangeline, Ouachita and St. Tammany parishes have the highest rate of these advisories.
“Devil’s Swamp just north of us is contaminated and many people there have no other sources of food. If they can’t hunt or fish, they can’t put food on the table.”
Subra said the most common contaminants are: hexachlorobenzene, hexachlorobutadiene, polycholrinatebifennels, PCB, priority organics, creosote, lead, arsenic, dioxin, DDT and mercury.
Sabra urged everyone to heed these advisories and understand that ingesting enough of these chemicals can seriously harm or kill you.
Though Subra and other activists gave stirring speeches and alarming numbers, nothing hit as hard as the story of Bayou Corne which, in the span of a few short years, has transformed from a sportsman’s paradise into hell on earth.
A massive sinkhole, now 26 acres across and unfathomably deep, continues to eat up the bayou and anything unfortunate enough to swim near it. Natural gas flares light up the swamps and neighborhoods north of Napoleonville, making it a dangerous place to visit, let alone live. All of this happened because Texas Brine Co. failed to maintain a sidewall in a massive salt dome cavern used to store natural gas, which collapsed on August 3, 2012. 350 people were forced to evacuate their homes.
Fifty miles north of Napoleonville, industrial companies continue to deplete Baton Rouge’s aquifers, dump chemicals into the Mississippi, and release pollutants into the air. Even the lake in the shadow of the state capitol has the sheen of oil on its surface. Honoré hopes that legislators begin to tighten up the lax laws that have allowed rampant pollution in the state, but plans to keep up the fight if they don’t.
“It’s a damn shame that even here, in the shadow of our state capitol that the lake is polluted and that our laws have allowed it to happen,” he said. “If the bills that would protect our water fail, we’ll continue to move through the democratic process to make it work.”