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‘Chemical Corridor’ : By ‘Old Man River,’ New Health Fear

Times Staff Writer

Kay Gaudet’s pharmacy isn’t doing as much business these days. The workers in the chemical plants don’t come anymore--not since she started asking questions.

She can’t prove that the plants told their workers to go someplace else to fill their prescriptions, though the whispers she hears tell her that’s what happened.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 28, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 28, 1989 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 5 National Desk 2 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
In its May 9 edition, The Times erroneously reported that Louisiana had the highest lung cancer death rate among black males in the world. According to the Louisiana State Department of Health and Hospitals, the city of New Orleans, not the state, has the highest incidence of lung cancer in the world. There are not enough statistics yet to know what the statewide incidence rate is for black males, the department said.

All Gaudet can say for certain is that one thing led to another. First she started tracking the number of miscarriages in this tiny Mississippi River town. Then came the newsmen and the publicity. And at that point, her business slowed to a trickle.

“It was like you could notice it overnight,” she said.

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What Gaudet found out was startling. In this community of 2,100 people, 63 women suffered 75 miscarriages in a three-year period from 1985 to 1988. One woman who lives next to a benzene plant has had four miscarriages in a row, including twins. Gaudet began to ask if there might be a relationship between the miscarriages and the smoke that belches from the petrochemical plants along the river. Others now wonder that as well.

One of Many Problems

The miscarriages are only one unexplained phenomenon along Louisiana’s Mississippi River shoreline. So polluted is the air and water along an 85-mile stretch of the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that it has become known as “cancer alley.”

It is in this stretch that 136 petrochemical plants and seven oil refineries line the Mississippi, spewing millions of pounds of toxins into both the air and water. Louisiana leads the nation in the amount of toxins released into the water, mostly the Mississippi. It was second only to Texas in the amount of toxins released into the air. But while the Texas petrochemical industry stretches for hundreds of miles along the Gulf of Mexico, from Corpus Christi to the Louisiana border, the bulk of Louisiana’s lies on the river below Baton Rouge.

Fear for Water Supply

Further, the area is dotted with dozens of deep-injection wells where all manner of hazardous materials are discarded, and environmentalists voice fears that the toxins eventually will find their way into the water table of this swampy land.

“You certainly have the largest concentration of poorly controlled facilities in the country,” said Carl Pope, deputy conservation director of the Sierra Club. “Louisiana is a multimedia problem.”

“It’s just a chemical soup,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Louisiana Toxic Project. “The amount of stuff discharged into the air and water is staggering.”

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Louisiana Atty. Gen. William Guste, in hearings before the House of Representatives, called it “a modern form of barbarism” that chemical companies were allowed to expose their neighbors to toxic materials.

A number of environmental groups, including the militant Greenpeace, staged a “Great Louisiana Toxics March” between Baton Rouge and New Orleans last November. Among other things, Greenpeace scuba divers blocked some of the chemical plants’ outlets in the river as a symbolic protest.

As recently as five years ago such rhetoric and tactics would have produced little more than derision from a public well aware of the state’s vital economic ties to the oil and chemical industries. But now enrollment in environmental groups is surging, and a billboard on the interstate highway to Baton Rouge, put there by workers striking a nearby chemical plant, asks the question: “Gateway to Cancer Alley?”

Increasingly, people in New Orleans and along the river blame the chemical plants when statistics point to frightening possibilities. For example, the lung cancer death rate among black males in Louisiana is the highest in the world. The lung cancer death rate for white males is the highest in the country. And the highest mortality rate for both is in Louisiana’s southern parishes (counties), including the area around New Orleans.

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Unfunny Jokes

Fear of health hazards has led to dark humor. It is said that people in the affluent Garden District of New Orleans get bottled water, while the people in the ghetto just get cancer.

“To date, the risk has been assumed by the public,” said Bob Kuehn of the Louisiana Environmental Law Clinic at Tulane University.

The chemical industry contends there is no proven cause-and-effect relationship between the emissions from plants along the river and health problems that seem to be cropping up more and more often.

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Dan Borne, spokesman for the Louisiana Chemical Assn., said, however, that it would be wrong to characterize the attitude of the industry as uncaring.

“We want the answers just as badly as the environmental community,” he said.

Nevertheless, skepticism of the industry’s commitment to public health abounds. For one, Borne’s predecessor was quoted as saying that the miscarriages pharmacist Gaudet was tracking just as easily could have been attributed to too much sexual intercourse.

Common Toxic Wastes

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And while the industry is correct in saying there is no data directly linking the toxic releases with specific health problems along the river, individual chemicals have been shown to be harmful. One of the most common emissions along the river is benzene, a solvent used in the rubber and plastics industry that has been linked with leukemia. Another is vinyl chloride, a colorless gas suspected of being a carcinogen affecting the liver and lungs.

According to data submitted to the EPA by the chemical industry, 774 million pounds of toxics were dumped into Louisiana’s waterways in 1987, the last year for which information is available. In that same year, a further 134 million pounds of toxics were released into the air.

Those figures represent only a small fraction of the number of carcinogens, embryo-toxins and mutagens that have been released into Louisiana’s air and water over the years. Willie Fontenot, an environmental specialist with the Louisiana attorney general’s office, said that petrochemical industry dumping of 900 million pounds of toxic waste into the air and water represents a major improvement over days gone by. The situation was much worse 10 years ago, he said.

“We really don’t know what has been unleashed on the people of this state,” he said. He cited numerous examples of physical ills believed caused by the toxins, from unexplained swelling of parts of the body to testicular cancer.

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For the moment anyway, the state is not going to be able to establish whether there is a direct correlation between the petrochemical wastes and the large number of health problems in the state. The reason: money.

“The state has no resources in its health department or university medical research facilities to look at environmental health problems,” Fontenot said.

The state doesn’t even have enough money for adequate monitoring of the multibillion-dollar petrochemical industry, even though Buddy Roemer is the first Louisiana governor in years who is interested in strengthening regulations. With the decline of the oil industry, the bedrock of the state’s economy, Louisiana has been limping along for the last five years. To make matters worse, neither the Legislature nor the electorate has been willing to approve any new revenue-raising measure.

Last month, the voters shot down a tax proposal, forcing Roemer to make even deeper cuts in the budget of what is already a skeletal government.

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That was bad news for Paul Templet, the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, one of the key players in regulation of the petrochemical industry. He is also one who knows there are difficult times ahead in trying to get tougher laws on the books. While Borne denies it, Templet says his major adversary is going to be the petrochemical industry.

‘Has to Do With Dollars’

“Industries will oppose it, and industries carry a lot of clout in the Legislature,” he said. “I’m sure it has a lot to do with dollars. Getting a bad rap in the press is one thing; getting a bad balance sheet is another.”

The petrochemical industry has been a fixture on the Louisiana landscape since World War II, when the plants began springing up along the river to meet an increasing demand for synthetic materials. Before that, the land along the river was mostly sugar cane plantations, run first with slaves, then tenant farmers. Today, the wide, looping Mississippi is so thick with industry that it is also known as the “chemical corridor.”

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Certainly the plants brought prosperity and jobs to a part of the state that was impoverished. The chemical industry in Louisiana employs more than 30,000 people and injects more than $2 billion into the state’s economy each year. No one denies that the state government went to great lengths to attract more plants, with little regard to what was happening to the air and water even within a few miles from the Capitol in Baton Rouge.

So here they are along the river, with their stacks and miles of pipes, producing--among other things--more than half the vinyl chloride in the United States.

Malek-Wiley said he believes the turning point in public attitude came in 1985, when there was a proposal that 12 million tons of gypsum--loaded with heavy metals--be dumped into the river.

“There was such a hue and cry, you wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “Every parish downstream opposed it.”

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Then came Kay Gaudet, he said, with her curiosity about what was happening in St. Gabriel and the surrounding communities. Polls now show major public concern about what is happening to the air and water in the state.

Environmental groups are seeing a surge in membership. The state’s newspapers are coming down hard on the side of the environmentalists. In a recent editorial, the New Orleans Times-Picayune lambasted the state’s U. S. senators, J. Bennett Johnston and John B. Breaux, and Rep. W. J.(Billy) Tauzin (all Democrats), as being both soft and wrong-headed on environmental issues.

As for Gaudet, her business is down but she and her husband--also a pharmacist at a nearby prison--will get by. Willie Fontenot wants to have a Kay Gaudet Day, on which people would be urged to drop by the drugstore and buy something--a toothbrush, some shampoo, whatever.

No, she is not sorry she opened her mouth. And sure, she knows cleaning up the chemical corridor is going to take time, and that the state first has to get through these hard times. She knows the governor’s heart is in the right place, but that his pockets are empty.

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Standing behind her counter at the rear of the drugstore, Gaudet smiled as she told of how people had come up to her in church and asked if she realized how she was affecting property values. She walked into the other room and came back with a notebook filled with the press clippings and other data compiled since she began counting the miscarriages.

On one page were the names of the women:

Sherri, Linda, Emma, Laurie, Tammy, Alice, Angie, Catherine, Karen, Charlotte, Dayna, Dee, Myre, Peggy, Rhonda. . . .

The list went on.

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