Audit: Louisiana needs to improve emissions enforcement

January 26, 2021 GMT

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality needs to do a better job of identifying industrial polluters that don’t properly report air emission violations and enforce those violations more aggressively, a new state audit says.

The report from Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office, released Monday, found the time it took for the state agency to issue enforcement actions after a known violation more than doubled between financial year 2015 and 2019, from nearly 10 months to nearly 20 months.

“As a result, there is a risk that facilities may have violations that remain uncorrected for years,” an audit summary said. “Best practices state that effective enforcement includes swift and predictable responses to violations.”

The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reports that auditors found it could take as long as nine years from the time a company was cited for violating emission standards before it was ordered to pay a fine or had a settlement approved requiring the company to pay for a mitigation project.

The Department of Environmental Quality doesn’t adequately track the penalties it has assessed, whether the penalties were paid or which facilities fail to submit self-monitoring reports on emissions, auditors wrote.

In his response to the audit, Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Carr Brown said his department is developing its own software to allow the staff to better track violations. When complete, it should also issue notices to staffers of failures to submit reports on time or of violations. Brown did not say when the software would be ready.

Purpera’s office said part of the agency’s enforcement problems can be traced to employee reductions, high workloads for the staff that remains and frequent employee turnover.

The report included 11 major recommendations. Brown said the agency generally agreed with 10 of them.

The two sides disagree over a recommendation that agency inspectors take photographs or gather other hard evidence to show inspections actually take place.

Brown said inspectors fill out a “field interview form” during the inspection that is left at the facility and copies are signed by both the inspectors and facility employees. But the audit report noted the department had to notify the legislative auditor and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general that a former employee had falsified at least three compliance investigations. New inspections were done, the state environmental quality agency said.

The legislative auditor’s report says Louisiana has the highest toxic air emissions per square mile of any state, citing data gathered by the EPA’s 2018 Toxics Release Inventory, a self-reported measurement of toxic chemicals released into the air, land or water by individual facilities. In 2018, Louisiana had an average of 1,239 pounds (562 kilograms) of toxic air releases per square mile. Ohio, the second highest state, averaged 899 pounds (407.7 kilograms) per square mile.

The audit also pointed to the EPA’s most recent National Air Toxics Assessment, from 2014, which identified a number of Louisiana locations with a high potential for cancer risks or high respiratory illness hazards linked to emissions from nearby manufacturing facilities. That assessment found numerous locations near chemical and other manufacturing facilities where residents are at higher risk of breathing problems, the audit said.

But the audit cited some improving news about air pollution in Louisiana.

The EPA’s AirNow web site’s daily reports of air pollution issues — mostly ground-level ozone and particulate matter — indicated that “good air quality” days in Louisiana increased by 21% between 2008 and 2018, and the number of “unhealthy days for sensitive groups” decreased by 71%.

However, the audit noted that several areas of the state “are highly industrialized and have high concentrations of air pollution” involving chemicals not measured by AirNow.