- Hurricane Laura devastated the city of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and led nearby chemical plants and refineries to release harmful emissions.
- The hurricane also knocked out the area’s air-quality monitors, making it hard to know how dangerous the air is.
- Chemical pollution has plagued Lake Charles residents for decades.
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Breon Robinson has lived in Lake Charles, Louisiana, nearly all of her life.
She fled the area last week ahead of Hurricane Laura. When the storm hit, it devastated Robinson’s neighbourhood – a predominantly Black area on the city’s north side. Fierce winds ripped streetlamps from concrete, tore roofs off homes, and ignited a fire at a chlorine plant in nearby Westlake, a small city west of Lake Charles.
That fire led the plant to spew enormous quantities of reddish-brown smog, which contained unknown quantities of skin-blistering chlorine gas, for more than two days until it was extinguished on Saturday. Residents living nearby were ordered to shelter in place on Thursday and Friday.
“They had to go back into homes with no water, no electricity,” Robinson, a 22-year-old activist and wellness blogger, told Insider.
She added that many Lake Charles locals think the chlorine plant wasn’t the only chemical facility that Hurricane Laura damaged.
Several of Robinson’s neighbours work at one of the many other oil refineries and chemical plants nearby. But the extent of damage to that and other plants is still unclear, according to Greg Langley, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). The hurricane left the roads to many such plants inaccessible.
“We’re still doing our assessment. It’s hard to get into some of those places,” Langley said.
To make matters worse, there’s no way to tell whether any of those other plants are emitting toxic chemicals, or how much, because power outages knocked out the region’s electrically powered air monitors, according to the Associated Press.
No electricity for air monitors
Because of the air-monitor outages around Lake Charles, the EPA temporarily monitored emissions from the chlorine plant using its own equipment aboard an aircraft. The agency detected several chemicals in the air, but the concentrations did not reach concerning levels.
Langley said the LDEQ plans to deploy mobile air-monitoring labs to the Lake Charles area by Wednesday, but he doesn’t yet know when the other air monitors will come back online. That depends on power returning to the Lake Charles area.
“The equipment itself is fine,” he said. “As soon as we get electricity, we’ll restart those.”
Even in a best-case scenario – one in which the hurricane didn’t damage any oil refineries or petrochemical plants – simply shutting them down and restarting them could produce millions of extra pounds of chemicals like butene and carbon monoxide, according to Grist.
But without proper monitoring, nobody knows whether the air is safe to breathe.
Lake Charles has suffered from pollution for decades
The chemicals that residents could be breathing from the chlorine plant, along with potential emissions from oil and petrochemical refineries, include vinyl chloride, benzene, and dioxins. All three increase cancer risk.
Dioxin is a chemical byproduct of chlorine manufacturing, among other processes, and was one of the chemicals in Agent Orange. It can cause reproductive issues and damage the immune system. Benzene exposure can cause vomiting and tremors, and it can damage the immune system as well. Vinyl chloride, meanwhile, can lead to liver damage if a person is exposed over a long period of time.
Breathing high levels of chlorine can cause fluid to build up in the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary edema that can be fatal.
The last week is not first time the greater Lake Charles area has contended with toxic chemical emissions. In 1998, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that the average resident of Mossville, a predominantly Black community in Westlake, had triple the normal levels of dioxin in their blood.
Most of Mossville’s residents left about a decade ago, after petrochemical company SASOL offered them a buyout. But residents of that community and nearby neighbourhoods, including Robinson’s, still complain of increased rates of cancer and other ailments, including heart disease.
She compared the area to a stretch of land along the Mississippi river near New Orleans, which is full of industrial plants. Its residents – also mostly Black – suffer from above-average cancer rates, which earned the region the nickname “Cancer Alley.”
“I would say we’re pretty much close to that, because of how close these plants are to people’s homes, communities, churches,” Robinson said.
According to the EPA, several communities in Louisiana face some of the highest cancer risk in the nation, at least in part because the state is a hub for petrochemical and petroleum manufacturing. Residents of Calcasieu Parish, where Mossville and Lake Charles are located, don’t have higher rates of cancer than the Louisiana average, according to a recent assessment. But that report did find that residents of the parish had elevated levels of specific types of cancers linked to chemical exposure, including colon, lung, and bladder cancer.
Robinson said people in her neighbourhood also worry about water and ground contamination. What’s more, she and other residents live next to a junkyard, so have to watch out for scrap metal in the roads.
“We have kids who want to play in the streets like a normal kid,” she said. “But we have to be cautious.”