ST. GABRIEL — The Louisiana Environmental Action Network is compiling a community-wide health assessment at the request of residents who say they fear industrial plants near their homes here are ruining their health and leading some to an early death.
While it will be months before the health survey is completed and the results known, officials with the consortium of local environmental organizations that comprise LEAN say they suspect breathing and cancer-related problems plaguing many residents are directly tied to emissions from industrial facilities they have lived near for years.
"Based on the conversations we've had so far, they're definitely having odor events that are impacting their health," said Wilma Subra, LEAN's technical assistant.
Rob Landry, a spokesman for the Louisiana Chemical Association, declined comment pending the eventual completion and release of LEAN's study.
LEAN has sent out hundreds of surveys asking citizens of the small Iberville Parish city questions about their health and the health conditions of their family members. There could also be some lab testing on soil and water in St. Gabriel as part of the assessment, Subra said.
"We'll put it together as a summary report provided to the community first," she said. "And then we'll provide it to the (state) health and environmental agencies and ask for their assistance in addressing the issues related to the survey."
Subra said the request for the study came during their fight to block a local industrial facility from receiving the variances and zoning permits it needed to expand its operation due to its checkered past with the state's Department of Environmental Quality.
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That company, Adsorbent Solutions, recycles and processes chemicals from other processing facilities. With so many other chemical plants in the city, officials with the company have previously said they are being unfairly targeted for any possible health impacts on the community.
St. Gabriel residents opposed to Adsorbent Solutions' expansion plans persuaded the City Council in April to deny the company's permit requests. However, the residents are convinced that Adsorbent, and other nearby facilities like it, have already done irreversible damage to the community.
Subra said the health impacts many St. Gabriel residents are experiencing "matched the health impacts associated with the chemicals that were coming to the facility." Some of the toxins involved, she said, are such known "cancer causing agents" as benzene, toluene and propylene oxide.
Adsorbent's president, Stewart Fulton, disputes any suggestion that his company played a part in health problems local residents have experienced, adding that his facility does not accept or process any hazardous wastes that would be harmful to the community.
He also said that, despite its past issues with LDEQ, his facility has run a clean operation for the past few years and officials there were attempting to improve upon it with the proposed expansion.
"I have no idea what kind of information that's going to come from the study (but) we know we don't have anything affecting public health coming from our facility," Fulton said.
Mayor Lionel Johnson recently presented the results of the city's own study into the recent deaths and possible contamination of the city's soil and drinking water.
Johnson said the city hired an environmental consultant in January after a citizen called an unusually large number of recent the deaths to his attention.
"I agreed with her that it seemed like we were having a funeral a week for a while here," Johnson said. "The concern I got about the deaths were that people were dying from cancer."
But out of the 21 deaths in the community was buzzing about that happened in a four-month period late last year, five were folks who neither lived nor died in the city, the city report states.
Of the 16 remaining deaths the city researched, mostly by combing through coroner reports between August and December 2016, four people died of natural causes, four from diabetic/kidney complications, three from cardiac failure and two from accidental injuries.
Only three of the reported 21 died from cancer, the city's report says.
The city's report also points out that the city's drinking water comes from the Baton Rouge Water Company, which is tested monthly by the Louisiana Department of Health. And soil samples the city collected from four of its park were lab tested and produced no significant findings of contaminants.
But Eugene Willis, one of several residents who enlisted LEAN's help, said the city's report did little to quell their concerns. They're placing more confidence in LEAN's impending health assessment.
"We're very dissatisfied with what the mayor said. We want samples of the ground and water near Adsorbent looked at," Willis said. "We're really displeased with all of it."
When asked, Johnson said he had no idea LEAN was conducting its health assessment. However, he welcomed any additional input gauging the health of well-being of his community.
"Depending on what they find we might have to start asking some tough questions," the mayor said.