Gov. Bobby Jindal last week launched his statewide "job creation" tour, which coincided with disturbing back-to-back chemical leaks at separate plants upriver from New Orleans. The leaks underscore the governor's duty to balance Louisiana's need for jobs with his responsibility for public safety and his stewardship over the state's fragile environment.
Thankfully, no one was seriously injured in the three incidents last week, one at the Cytec plant at Waggaman in Jefferson Parish and two at the Dow Chemical facility in Hahnville in St. Charles Parish. However, 33 people, including two St. Charles Parish sheriff's deputies, received medial treatment after the release of nauseating but nontoxic fumes of ethyl acrylate at the Dow plant. Fifteen homeowners were evacuated temporarily. A stretch of River Road, a busy thoroughfare in St. Charles Parish, was shut down temporarily. And the stench could be smelled all over the New Orleans metro area.
The first Dow leak also exposed communication gaps between emergency officials in St. Charles Parish and their counterparts in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, who said they were not notified until several hours after the event. The leak further revealed that too few residents have registered contact information with the St. Charles Parish emergency alert system. That's a cautionary tale for all residents this hurricane season. Earlier, a power outage at Cytec caused the release of a toxic ammonia vapor, plant authorities say. West Bank residents reported eye and throat irritations before the company gave the all-clear signal.
Last week's incidents raise public concerns about potential toxic ammonia leaks from a cold-storage warehouse the Port of New Orleans wants to build on the riverfront near the historic French Market. In addition to trying to keep 500 jobs in the city while raising $40 million for the project, officials at the port and New Orleans Cold Storage Inc. (NOCS) must now assure the public that 40,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia can be safely transported, stored and used to blast-freeze chicken packages on the Gov. Nicholls Street Wharf. The proposal has pitted French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny residents against port officials and business interests.
Unfortunately, the "frozen chicken" fight comes in the wake of a major environmental victory — the closing of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO). By the time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the manmade shipping channel to navigation — on Earth Day — it was difficult to find any opposition to the move. It's been much harder to find leaders with a vision for offsetting the loss of 1,000 maritime-related jobs and other fallout from the closing of the MR-GO.
The port's 2020 Master Plan, published after Hurricane Katrina, summed up the dilemma: "Pressure and competition for limited space on the Mississippi River is increasing because of the mass relocation of port tenants and other industries away from the MR-GO and the IHNC [Inner Harbor Navigational Canal, or Industrial Canal]," the report states. New Orleans Cold Storage, currently on Jourdan Road at the intersection of the MR-GO and the Industrial Canal, is among the businesses that have suffered from a lack of access to shallow-draft ships that once traveled the MR-GO, port spokesman Chris Bonura says. Meanwhile, the port and the company are pressing ahead with their plans for relocating NOCS to the riverfront, Bonura says.
Port and safety experts have downplayed the risk of ammonia leaks. NOCS, headquartered in New Orleans since 1886, has never had an ammonia-related injury, Bonura adds, noting that the port has not experienced an ammonia leak since a "contained" incident — without injuries — at the Nashville wharf a decade ago. Over the last three years, State Police spokesman Sgt. Markus Smith tells Gambit, troopers have responded to a number of confirmed incidents statewide involving anhydrous ammonia leaks: five ships, four barges, three storage cylinders, three tank trucks and 10 separate railroad cars. In addition, there were 169 incidents at "fixed sites" such as farms — as well as seven illegal "meth labs." Additional information, such as a geographic breakdown, was not immediately available.
The governor, who appoints all seven commissioners on the Dock Board, should order a detailed safety report on all hazardous chemicals in Louisiana. After the foul odor that blew into the city last week, such a move might be good for business, the environment and the public's health — and that's the right balance.