Report from Bogalusa: Seething Anger and Illness on the Pearl River
by Elizabeth Cook
Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011 at 10:00 AM
There is evidence of a cover-up of the actual starting date of this incident, and illness people are experiencing who came in contact with the Pearl River during the massive fish kill.
Traveling on La. Highway 21 to Bogalusa with Robert Sullivan for the August 22nd public hearing on the Pearl River poisoning had us delayed by the need for local police to detonate a barn with several sticks of decades old dynamite stored in it. The barn was close to the highway, so traffic was stopped both ways for about one half hour in the deepening twilight. A single large house stood close to the road filled with adults and children, all anticipating the explosion. We chatted with locals pulled over in their cars, some complaining bitterly about being held up. I muttered some complaints myself and pressed for information. One local woman said about 1000 people were hired to clean the dead fish out of the river, at $15 per hour. A loud “boom” suddenly rocked the country air, and we all jumped involuntarily. A large cloud of brown appeared just off the highway and the smell of sulfur hung in the air.
This was our rather surreal introduction to this paper mill country. I anticipated more surprises for the night.
That anticipation was soon acknowledged. I expected to find angry folks in Bogalusa as a result of a massive fish kill on the Pearl River. I also expected to find evidence of cover-up of this ecological crime. What I didn't expect to find was evidence that the “incident” that supposedly began last Tuesday, August 16th, actually may have begun July 27. Perhaps even earlier.
An overflow crowd of about 200 residents and activists kept many of us in the lobby of the old, historical Bogalusa City Hall, listening to the “public hearing” by loud speakers. Residents of the area with very serious looks and shakes of the head in a disbelieving manner that their paradise, like the Gulf, had within days become a source of hell to them, stood quietly listening. I quickly realized that this “public hearing” was actually a parade of grandstanding local and state officials from DHH and DEQ, concerned but weak state legislators, and representatives of the Temple-Inland paper mill responsible for fouling Pearl River and surrounding tributaries doing their best to sound humble.
I have been unable to find any news reports, so I don't have names of the DHH or Temple-Inland officials who spoke. I heard some of the Temple-Inland statement, and the official appeared to be utilizing his local roots to sound a “good old boy” theme that he at least hoped would be disarming. I can tell you that the DHH official proclaimed that cancer alley is not about the chemicals that have been released into our air and water. It's about our lifestyle: smoking, eating the wrong foods, etc. What this had to do with the Pearl River incident, I don't know.
This same DHH official related the time line of events. Without hardly blinking an eye he recounted how it took 6 days from the start of the incident for DHH to declare a warning about Pearl River water quality. At the same time, this same DHH official declared they have heard no reports of rashes or other illnesses resulting from this chemical spill. Shades of BP.
He went on to speak for what seemed like forever, and ended with a statement that sure, they could do better. But its just so hard to have answers during such an emergency, he opined. “I've been doing this for thirty years”, he proclaimed. Thirty years too long, I thought. I remembered a comment from one angry resident online: so black, foamy water and thousands of dead fish just isn't enough evidence to make a rational decision to warn people from the water immediately, apparently.
Other officials spoke and it seemed like they would never get to the “public” part of this hearing. Apparently, their definition of public hearing is for the public to come and hear them speak. Over 150 cards were filled out though by folks waiting to speak, but I wondered how many would wait out the windbags to speak their minds.
I began speaking to the people standing near me in the lobby, and quickly met folks who had become ill from exposure to the toxic waters of the Pearl River. One couple who fished the river on the Thursday after the supposed August 16th start of the incident said they are suffering from rashes, nausea and diarrhea, and have sought medical treatment. Another woman reported how her brother, who came in contact with the water during the incident, also is suffering from a rash “from his head to his toe”.
The incident apparently began on July 27th. I met an African American woman who was there to testify about the backup of the “black liquor” in the yard of the subsidized housing complex she lives in in Bogalusa on July 27th. She said she was made ill from exposure to the chemicals, and plans to seek treatment at a local hospital. The yard was literally bleeding this black liquor, she described. The black liquor also came up through the pipes of her neighbors that day in the complex. I met a mother and daughter who live in the same area and they reported the same issue: black liquor coming through the pipes and seeping in their yard, on the same day. I call it “black liquor”, because that is the term that is used to describe the waste water that is created in the production of pulp for paper. For every one ton of pulp, seven tons of black liquor is created. It is the black liquor that was dumped into the Pearl River, killing everything for miles downriver.
Processes have been developed to burn this black liquor for energy, so that paper mills can actually create their own energy. There are other uses for the black liquor as well. However, the Temple-Inland plant is apparently outdated, as it continues to use aeration ponds to treat the black liquor before dumping it into the Pearl River. I'm not sure if this company reclaims any of the black liquor for other uses. I do know that DEQ has said they have granted a permit to this company to dump as much as 37,000 pounds of black liquor a day into the Pearl River.
What I suspect happened on July 27th is that the containment ponds became overwhelmed with black liquor and rain water, and burst through their containment to overwhelm areas of Bogalusa's drinking water system, so that the foul liquid actually came through pipes, and seeped into yards. This was unreported in the news, but I'm sure the city knew. How do I know the city of Bogalusa knew of the problem? Because they cut the water off for several hours on July 27th. The woman living in subsidized housing said after the water was cut back on, it continued to come out of pipes black in her neighbor's apartment for several hours, until it finally cleared. She herself said her water was yellow coming out of the pipes. Apparently no warning was issued by the city to these residents. We don't know whether a report has been filed with DEQ. This incident warrants a freedom of information request of the city and state to see who knew what, when.
There are also rumors that the black liquor was purposefully dumped in larger than allowed quantities into the Pearl River last week, and that because of a mechanical malfunction, the process could not be stopped once started. This has not be confirmed of course or admitted. Company officials and DEQ are calling this an “accident”.
Louisiana had a large amount of rain in the month of July and early August because of a low system in the Gulf that literally sat on top of us for weeks. I suspect what happened is this rainwater overwhelmed the containment ponds at the paper mill. Rather than halt production, the company allowed this ecological disaster to unfold.
I heard at least two state legislators speak at the hearing, Senator A.J. Crowe and Senator Ben Nevers. Both asked good questions. Crowe asked what long term effects that folks would be looking at. Nevers brought up potential pollution of shallow drinking wells along the Pearl River. However, there was no follow-up when the DHH official gave the stock answers. Both senators thanked the DHH and other state officials for their efforts. I'm sure many in the room were thinking “what efforts” as that state agency waited a full 6 days to issue a water quality warning, allowing possibly hundreds of folks to be exposed to toxic chemicals in the water.
The DHH official claimed that there have been no reports of illnesses from exposure to the chemicals. The same official, calling the marine life of the Pearl River “seafood”, declared that the seafood was safe to eat, and that it had been "tested". He brought up the testing of seafood during the BP disaster, I suppose, as an analogy as to how careful the state is. He's opening a can of worms there. He said he would eat the "seafood" from the Pearl River. Very recently though in the Times Picayune, St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis, who has actually shown some good sense with the absence of good sense from other parties, said that residents should continue to stay away from the water and fish and other marine life in the water. He said the water is being tested, and results will be back towards the end of the month.
The black liquor is toxic to marine life according to articles I read online, despite the DEQ's proclamation in the news recently that this was not an incident of chemical toxicity, but one of oxygen deprivation that killed the large numbers of fish. The DEQ is being cagey here in that toxic chemicals in water can cause bacteria outbreaks that deprive a body of water oxygen, killing the life in it. Today there were reports on WWL TV that crabbers in Lake Borgne, which the Pearl River empties into, are catching dead crabs. This is unusual, say the crabbers, and they are blaming the black liquor from the Pearl River poisoning. Jeff Dauzat with DEQ was interviewed, an official I ran into numerous times during the BP staged “open houses”. He always seemed a willing disseminator of BP propaganda on the safety of the Corexit. Dauzat said on the news that there is “no reason” to believe the dead crabs are related to the Pearl River poisoning. DEQ is threatening hefty fines against Tillman-Inland, so why downplay the incident? It is politically and possibly ideologically driven. Jindal is loathe to regulate even the most heinous of polluters.
The crabbers rightly called for the testing of the water and crabs. “Prove it”, they said to Dauzat. John Lopez with the Lake Ponchartrain Basin Foundation said in a news report that they will test the water flowing into the Lake Borgne.
Chlorine and compounds of chlorine can be used in the bleaching of the pulp, and, depending on the process, poisonous dioxines can be released into the environment. I do not know at this time what process of bleaching is used by Temple-Inland. Sulfur dioxide can be released from the production of pulp, and is a major concern because of acid rain.
In addition, a variety of chemicals can be released into the air and water from paper mills, including:
volatile organic compounds, chloroform.
I met a family at the hearing that lives behind the mill in Bogalusa, and the entire family suffers from chronic respiratory problems. The two year old daughter has chronic asthma.
I left early from the meeting. Ben Gordon stayed for the entire meeting which lasted until 11pm. Officials threatened to close the meeting, he said, at 9pm, but the public demanded to be heard. Everyone that had filled out a card was heard, he said, although the entire panel of officials did not stay for the entire hearing. I witnessed several members of the public leave early as well, during the “grandstanding” portion of the meeting that seemed to go on and on. Ben said the stock answer that was given after each person spoke is that there “will be an investigation”. With what we've heard already from DHH and DEQ, how can the public have any faith in these “investigations”? The elephant in the room of course is the hundreds, possibly thousands of folks suffering in the Gulf states from oil and Corexit poisoning, and the collusion between states and the federal government to cover this up.
This company is currently not a responsible member of the community, and the plant should be permanently shut down and its owners, after a real investigation, possibly jailed for criminal neglect, along with hefty fines. It is possible to fit paper mills with technology that significantly reduces pollution, from the short number of articles I have read on the issue. There is no reason for this paper mill to be operating in this manner, save for a lack of political will and enforcement by the Jindal administration. Residents of Bogalusa may very well be living on a superfund site as a result of pollution from this paper mill.