City Council Sweepingly Approves Resolution for Clean Air

“Air Pollution, Refinery, Louisiana” by is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“My Toxic Mardi Gras” – a headline no one here wants to read, but the possibility was brought up at yesterday’s city council hearing for R-21-239, the Resolution for Clean Air. Luckily, yesterday’s city council ruling brings us one step closer to minimizing that possibility. On June 28, 2021, the Jefferson-Orleans-Irish Channel Neighbors for Clean Air, or JOIN for Clean Air, released a comprehensive and damning report on the toxic emissions from BWC Harvey (formerly known as Blackwater Harvey). This is a must-read report and it’s mind-boggling that no one else has covered this issue other than in 2020

BWC Harvey is a 48-acre, bulk petrochemical storage and transfer facility that stands accused of emitting toxic fumes, “sham permitting,” and fostering an explosion hazard. The Louisiana Department for Environmental Quality (LDEQ) identified the site as the “primary source” of toxic fumes reported throughout the Irish Channel and surrounding neighborhoods. 

An estimated 75,000 people live in the affected area, including 15,000 children, tourist hubs (e.g. Magazine Street, Commander’s Palace), and multiple schools. 

Since August 2018, the LDEQ received at least 850 toxic odor complaints, representing more than 150 households, related to BWC Harvey. Complaints have surged since November 2019 following LDEQ’s permit approval for a site expansion. Their

complaints detail various health impacts, including “headaches, migraines, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and burning of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.” The facility carries many products that emit known carcinogens, namely benzo(a)pyrene, which is known to cause reproductive harm and skin damage. The CDC states that there is no safe level of exposure to benzo(a)pyrene and similar carcinogens. 

The report states that BWC constructed the Harvey facility through “sham permitting,” arguing that LDEQ approved construction of 22 tanks as a series of “insignificant activities;” however, BWC Harvey’s records show that the facility emitted over six times the limit for an insignificant activity in a year. Despite this fact, the LDEQ permitted their Phase 2 Expansion in 2019 with no apparent regard for the dearth of public complaints related to the facility.

The facility withdrew attempts to expand a third time in 2020 due to widespread opposition from greater public awareness, which was a good sign, but the issue still hasn’t been resolved. The facility continues to emit “at least 57 different toxic air pollutants, including many known carcinogens”. Additionally, LDEQ allows BWC Harvey to calculate its emissions using software that the Environmental Protection Agency considers “outdated” and “unreliable.” JOIN has asked LDEQ to explain their pollution calculations to no avail, which is an outright failure on the part of the government to provide necessary transparency for public health. 

In late 2020, BWC installed odor control systems in their truck loading system and eight tanks in response to public pressure over toxic fumes. This appears to be a performative palliative more than anything else. During a March 2021 site tour of BWC Harvey, JOIN for Clean Air documented strong petroleum odors from truck loading, despite the odor control system operating at the time. They report further that the site has no odor control system for barge, vessel, and rail car loading, and conclude that this is “likely the main source of its toxic emissions.” 

This makes sense. In 2019, product loading accounted for approximately 80% of BWC Harvey’s volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. The fact that odor complaints have been occurring in surges, rather than a steady stream, supports the idea that BWC’s emissions are caused by loading, not storage. This is serious, BWC is not being held liable for years of toxic fumes and their odor control system does not work. If that’s not concerning enough, consider the report’s observation that since BWC closed all but one vent on each tank attached to an odor control system, “hydrogen sulfide gas may be more likely to accumulate inside the tanks – an explosion risk.”

BWC Harvey is a major public health hazard and it can only get worse if public action is not taken immediately. The report concludes that, “Both the Louisiana Governor and the EPA should immediately exercise their oversight authority to cease BWC Harvey’s operations until a time when (and if) the company can obtain a proper air permit and operate safely.” In the meanwhile, actions are being taken on the local level to get the ball rolling.

Yesterday, the Resolution for Clean Air, R-21-239, was discussed at the New Orleans City Council. The resolution was backed by Councilmembers Kristen Palmer and Jay Banks. It passed 7-0, a massive success for community advocates. The resolution urges the city council to compel the Louisiana’s Governor’s Office and the United States EPA to immediately exercise oversight authority, compel the LDEQ to suspend BWC Harvey’s air permit, institute a permit review process that provides for public input, and to monitor concentration toxic emissions. 

Ten individuals spoke at the council meeting, including Adam Smith, senior vice president for the BWC Harvey Terminals, who, according to one of the community speakers, once stated that the toxic fumes were a nuisance akin to a neighbor smoking marijuana. Smith argued that the June LDEQ report does not support the idea that BWC Harvey is responsible for these emissions, but this report only looks at 26 complaints in the month of June. This is especially puzzling given that JOIN for Clean Air’s findings are sourced from LDEQ data and LDEQ has previously stated a connection between the emissions and the Harvey facility. Additionally, LDEQ’s failures to hold BWC accountable in the past cast doubt on their findings.

The LDEQ report declared the establishment of an Irish Channel Air Monitoring Site, but many members of the community and the council view this as insufficient. As one member of the community stated that there’s no need for an air monitor that does not determine source because, “we have an air monitor right on the front of our faces.” Councilmember Banks aligned with this view, stating that the approach was like, “closing the barn door after the horse got out.”

Many members of the community pointed out that the fumes leak into their homes at night with one speaker testifying that their child often cannot sleep at night due to the noxious odors. A common concern voiced was the specter of fear created by the fumes leading to a collective feeling of being trapped in one’s home. As one community member astutely pointed out, “New Orleanians live on their porches, in their gardens,” but not any more in the areas surrounding BWC Harvey. There was 10 minutes of internet comments read, all in support for the resolution, and many more that could not be read in the time span.

Adam Smith insists that there is no causal tie between BWC’s Harvey facility and the odors, pointing to other nearby facilities as possible and unexamined sources, but speakers for the community all agreed that these fumes never began until BWC’s second site expansion. Regardless, it’s clear that the community and government must get to the bottom of this. As such, Councilmember Banks stated that there would be a public meeting (date TBA) where BWC, LDEQ, and the community would be invited to resolve the issue. The fight for clean air is far from over, but as one community member stated, “This resolution is a glimmer of hope for me.” Big Easy Magazine has reached out to city councilmembers for comment. Stay tuned for further updates as the issue unfolds.

Big Easy Magazine reached out to Councilmembers Jay Banks and Kristin Palmer but have yet to receive a response.

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to include a response from Councilman Bank’s office:

 “New Orleanians deserve to breathe clean air and should not have to worry about odors disrupting their quality of life. Whether the issue is with any of the six facilities on the Westbank, or some other source, the point of my letter and the resolution that was passed is to have the state and the EPA work together to identify and remediate the source of the noxious odors.”


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