After successful fight against barge-cleaning facility environmentalists and others turn their attention to north Baton Rouge _lowres

Photo provided by Jeffrey Dubinsky/Louisiana Environmental Action Network -- retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré

At Monday's meeting of the Baton Rouge Press Club, retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré implored journalists to invest ink and airtime on environmental issues. 

Heading into the legislative session, his advocacy group, the Green Army, has identified several areas in which he said new laws could improve air and water quality. Too many Louisiana residents are suffering from asthma, cancer and other ailments believed caused by pollution, and too many fishing spots and other natural areas are being destroyed by the state's lax emissions rules, Honoré said.

Several bills have already been filed. One would require more testing of drinking water for substances like lead. Perhaps most notable in Louisiana, the town of St. Joseph only recently opened a new water treatment and distribution center after more than a year of having its water trucked in. But there are hundreds of inadequate systems across the state where children must drink and bathe in brown water, Honoré said.

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Another proposed bill would stiffen requirements on companies disposing of waste munitions and explosives. The bill would prevent the open burning of such material near Colfax, where such work is currently done but where people have been reporting instances of thyroid cancer the Green Army believes to be connected.

A third bill would classify the aquifer under Baton Rouge as an area of critical concern, which could lead to industrial users like Exxon and Georgia-Pacific being forced to switch exclusively to river water. As fresh water is pumped out of the aquifer, salt water has steadily migrated north. The Capital Area Groundwater Commission has proposed building a row of scavenger wells, which would suck the salt water away from fresh water wells and inject the salt water deep underground. One is in place, with plans for perhaps two more, but the plan has been criticized for being inadequate and slow-moving. Honoré called it insanity.

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Commission Executive Director Tony Duplechin attended Monday’s event and afterward countered Honoré’s assessment. It’s important to remember that the scavenger wells are intended to work as a system, Duplechin said. It’s just a lengthy and expensive process to get them all online, he said, noting that just digging an exploratory well to make sure the scavenger well is placed in the right place is estimated to cost about $300,000.

“We’re not going to run industry off,” Duplechin said.

Honoré also wants new legislation addressing abandoned oil wells that would make it harder for owners to shove them off on the state. Additionally, Louisiana must take steps to ensure that low-income, rural, indigenous and minority communities enjoy equal protection from pollution, he said.

Finally, Honoré wants to place air quality monitors on the property line of facilities with known emissions violations. This fence-line monitoring could be used to give the public a round-the-clock check on known polluters. In Oakland, California, officials with the backing of California and federal authorities placed such a device at a Chevron facility. The idea should be outsourced to the Bayou State, but the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality hasn’t been receptive, Honoré said.

“I do think we need to have constant air monitoring here,” the Green Army leader continued.

Fence-line monitoring, however, can give a skewed view of air pollution, LDEQ Press Secretary Greg Langley said in an interview. That’s because emissions escaping from a smokestack high overhead can float over the monitoring stations on the property line before coming down to settle in the community, he explained.

Currently, the state goes into communities for a few days at a time to collect samples. Those visits are often instigated based on complaints, or because a plant has taken action linked to higher risk of pollution, like flaring off excess emissions, Langley said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.