Burden of Proof

Louisianans take action to find out what's happening with their dirty neighbors—oil refineries—explains Molly Brackin of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Since 2000, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has worked with communities throughout Louisiana that neighbor oil refineries and chemical plants, and are overburdened by pollution.

Flaring at a oil refinery.
Flaring at a oil refinery. (Photo provided by Jesse Marquez)

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This guest blog post was written by Molly Brackin of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental health and justice organization. Since 2000, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has worked with communities throughout Louisiana that neighbor oil refineries and chemical plants, and are overburdened by pollution. Their mission is to support communities’ use of grassroots action to create informed, sustainable neighborhoods free from industrial pollution. The Bucket Brigade model is to equip communities most impacted by pollution with easy-to-use tools to monitor their environment and hold industry accountable.

Read Molly’s blog post:

Louisianans take action to find out what’s happening with their dirty neighbors

Under-regulated and uncontrolled toxic emissions from oil refineries are impacting communities across the country. The lack of information and data provided to people living in the shadows of these polluters—in places like Louisiana—is startling. That is why the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has taken action to find out just what pollutants these dangerous refineries are pumping into Louisianans lungs.

In Louisiana, more than 200,000 people live within two miles of a refinery. These communities frequently receive zero or incorrect information about the amount of pollution in their neighborhoods. The EPA uses emissions factors such as industry’s own estimations to set air quality standards, emission limits and permit requirements.

The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA review emissions factors at least every three years. Unfortunately, this has not happened, so the EPA is using bad information to set health standards—betting the health of people in Louisiana on an uneducated guess.

Inaccurate emissions factors aren’t the only way the Clean Air Act falls short of protecting communities (known as fence-line communities) from their polluting neighbors. Fence-line monitoring is not required by the Clean Air Act. The only monitoring done is within the facility boundaries, which means that many communities are left in the dark about what pollutants are drifting into their neighborhood. Furthermore, the law allows industry to self-report their accidents and emissions, which is like the fox guarding the hen house.

This outdated and inaccurate information and the lack of strict air monitoring regulations puts the burden of proof on the communities. With this in mind, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade developed the iWitness Pollution Map in early 2010. This tool is used to empower Louisiana residents to track pollution and associated health effects in their communities.

The iWitness Pollution Map is an online map that allows anyone with a cell phone to document and share their experience with pollution via voicemail, text, email or by using the online form. Visitors of the map are able to see reports in real-time, identify pollution hotspots by viewing the geographic location of the reports, and sign up to get alerts. Today there are more than 11,000 reports of pollution on the map.

Consistent citizen reporting to the iWitness Pollution Map provides crucial evidence debunking the industry claim that their chemical releases result in “no offsite impact.” Last year there were more than 1,200 citizen reports of pollution from the 17 oil refineries and 2 associated chemical plants in Louisiana. Citizens report smells, flaring events, loud noises coming from the facilities, and health effects among other things.

Here are some actual reports:

  • “It’s extremely stinky outside right now, very chemically smelling. I don’t know exactly what type of smell it is, but is very chemical and it seems to be coming from the Exxon plant off Scenic Highway. I guess it is around 6 p.m. in the evening. It’s raining and no feel of anything but just definitely very smelly, very unnatural. It’s thick outside.”
    – January 13, 2013, Baton Rouge, LA
  • “That plant over there, that flare is going just like a train. It’s been doing it all night long. And I can hear it all on my porch on Broadway now. And it smells real bad on the 4900 block of Jewella.”
    – July 28, 2013, Shreveport, LA
  • “When I had gotten off of work at 2:30 a.m. there was a weird smell in the air. At 10am the smell woke me up it was all outside & inside my home, which brought on a migraine & nausea! I don’t know what the chemical is or if it’s even safe for us to be in our home right now. The news & fire departments are saying it’s a mystery & others say it’s coming from the Chalmette refinery.”
    – April 3, 2013, Algiers, New Orleans, LA

Lax regulations, loopholes in the Clean Air Act, and the general attitude of “profits over people” are reasons why the iWitness Pollution Map even exists. It gives the residents of Louisiana a voice in a culture of greedy industry and ineffective regulators. Communities across the nation need to keep pushing back so that the EPA starts to listen.

Earthjustice, representing LABB and others, recently won a settlement that has forced the EPA to review the antiquated Clean Air Act standards that currently allow tons of toxic air emissions from oil refineries to pollute its neighbors. Join us and communities around the country in demanding that the EPA fulfill its responsibilities under the Clean Air Act to protect our communities, particularly children, from cancer and other health threats posed by oil refineries. Act now!

Molly Brackin is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, where she serves as the Monitoring & Evaluation Associate. She holds a Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans, where she specialized in hazard mitigation and disaster.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.