We Don't Know How Much Air Pollution Hurricane Laura Caused

In the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, Gulf Coast residents have been exposed to toxic emissions from chemical fires and oil and gas refinery plants—but we don’t even know how much pollution, because some important air monitors are

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, Gulf Coast residents have been exposed to toxic emissions from chemical fires and oil and gas refinery plants—but we don’t even know how much pollution, because some important air monitors are offline.

It’s also important because in the area, residents are often exposed to more than one toxic chemical at once. “So if you take the chlorine fire, for example, chlorine gas is super toxic and it’s actually been used as in chemical warfare as a choking agent,” said Kimberly Terrell, Tulane Environmental Law Clinic’s director of community outreach.

Wilma Subra, a chemist with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said that while petrochemical agencies are required to send reports of their emissions to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, community members don’t have access to them. “They’re required to submit it to the regulatory agencies within generally 24 hours, but they have seven days to provide it to the community, to the public,” she said.

Exposure to both chlorine gas can lead to myriad health issues. NOLA. com reported that the chlorine fire was among more than 50 pollution events in Louisiana linked to the storm Laura that have been reported to the U. S.

She said these impacts will be even worse because the Louisiana residents burdened with all of this pollution are disproportionately low-income, and often don’t have the resources to evacuate dangerous areas amid threatening events like chemical fires and leaks caused by hurricanes.

The lack of transparency about emissions can also make it hard to hold facilities accountable for their pollution. “If there’s data, sometimes you can point to a specific violation by a company, saying they violated some regulation in particular, and then you can you have some legal hooks and try to wage a lawsuit,” said Malek-Wiley. “But if you don’t have any kind of data, you can’t just go fishing and say, ‘I want to sue all these companies because I think something happened. ’ That doesn’t go very far in court.

The situation mirrors what happened during Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago. “You’d think in the 15 years since, they would have learned to armor their air quality monitors, back them up with extra batteries, back them up with solar panels, build them to withstand flood surge, but it doesn’t seem they’ve learned,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, an environmental justice organizer with Sierra Club in New Orleans.

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report shared with Earther said that “no significant concentrations of airborne chemicals… had been detected within the residential area since the start of the incident,” referring to the fire and its own monitoring efforts using planes and handheld monitorsdevices that are separate from the state.

A chemical fire burns at a Biolab manufacturing facility during the aftermath of Hurricane Laura Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, near Lake Charles, Louisiana. Photo: David J.

This lack of information can make it difficult for residents to know which areas people living in the area should avoid. “That’s especially true because while some of these gases [like chlorine and benzene] have a real odor when they hit particular levels, some other gases you can’t even smell in the air,” Malek-Wiley said.

In the aftermath of Laura, residents who couldn’t leave have been left without power in the midst of a sweltering heat wave, and the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals is making a bad situation worse worse.

Residents are regularly exposed to high levels of toxic air pollution that has been linked to increased levels of cancer and respiratory disease for the majority of-color communities nearby even under normal conditions.

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