At best, activists said Friday, the state’s proposed new environmental rules show that regulators are being thoughtless; at worst, they’re choosing to give polluters a free pass.
They’re taking aim at the state Department of Environmental Quality’s proposed update of its RECAP program, which sets standards for testing and cleaning up contaminated soil and groundwater sites.
In a January Louisiana Register, DEQ wrote that the changes to the Risk Evaluation/Corrective Action Program would make the program more efficient and make remediation cheaper while satisfying current science and federal EPA risk assessment methods.
By focusing on the most urgent sites, DEQ wrote in its notice of intent, the proposed regulations would also allow previously idle property to be brought back into commerce and begin contributing to tax collections.
But at a public hearing Friday, conservation groups excoriated DEQ for the proposed rules and the manner in which they were devised. They worried for the health of people and the environment, including sites close to Baton Rouge such as Spanish Lake.
Chemist Wilma Subra of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network said the new standards would stop testing for 12 substances that can cause disease, genetic mutation, liver damage and reduced male and female fertility. Of the remaining 138 chemicals tested in soil, DEQ would allow higher concentrations for 70 percent of them, Subra said. Eight percent of the chemicals would have the same standards as the existing rules in place since 2003, and the remaining 22 percent would see tighter regulation.
And it’s not all exotic substances. Wetlands ecologist Scott Nesbit is worried about salt. He and his partners at Spanish Lake Restoration are locked in a court battle with Shell Oil over chemicals left over from decades-old oil drilling, including brine. He’s concerned new rules like the RECAP proposal would make it easier for companies that contaminate wetlands to foist cleanup on the public.
“Let’s not just give them a green card to walk away,” he said.
DEQ officials did not present at the hearing, but they have written that the proposed revisions would make it easier to focus on seriously dangerous sites so they can save time and money to devote to more productive ends.
“Often, regardless of the resources spent, remediating to pristine conditions has been unachievable and risk is not reduced. The time and effort expended in making these sometimes futile efforts can be better spent on projects that provide greater reduction in risk to human health and the environment,” DEQ officials wrote in both the 2003 regulations and the 2019 proposal.
Matt Rota of the Gulf Restoration Network said it is disingenuous to frame the proposed changes as streamlining the process; in reality, he said, DEQ is changing the rules to ease the burden on polluters.
What’s more, the state is tightening standards, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t put out guidelines that would prompt such a move, said Kimberly Terrell of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.
“These proposed standards are not protective of human health, nor are they based in science,” she said.
Some chemicals like barium and benzine would be allowed in concentrations double, quadruple or octuple what they are now. But the one that got the most attention was chromium, which would be permitted in doses a thousand times higher than at present, said Sierra Club organizer Darryl Malek-Wiley.
Environmentalists had other concerns: whether fish and shellfish would be harmed by higher concentrations of chemicals; whether the rules would disproportionately impact low-income areas; why DEQ didn’t include better guidance on how companies can clean up property they don’t own; whether the agency should adapt new techniques in practice in other states.
Many said the state should have done more to solicit input from groups like theirs. Many, especially Green Army leader Russel Honoré, hammered DEQ and Secretary Chuck Carr Brown for scheduling the hearing on a Friday afternoon just days before Mardi Gras.
“No good Louisiana boy would schedule a meeting for the Friday before Mardi Gras,” Honoré said.