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The Toxic Top Ten 

If recent news reports that Louisiana leads the nation in poverty aren't bad enough, consider our state's environmental rankings.

Dale Givens, the secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), told a river parish chamber of commerce earlier this month that Louisiana is no longer among the top 10 toxic polluters in the nation. We're just No. 12 -- and probably not for long.

This information comes from Toxic Release Inventory data (TRI), a compilation of the annual toxic chemical release and waste management activities reported by manufacturing plants, the petro-chemical industry and certain other industries to DEQ and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In April, DEQ first announced "drastic reductions" in Louisiana's ranking TRI data for 1999. A total of 150 million pounds of toxic materials were released into the air, water, land and underground injection wells.

But Louisiana's happy tumble from No. 10 in 1998 to No. 12 in 1999 is not expected to last long. The temporary good news is due more to changes in reporting criteria than to any dramatic clean-ups of our air, water and land. Secretary Givens says the primary reason for Louisiana's two-spot improvement in the TRI ranks is because EPA deleted phosphoric acid from its list of toxic pollutants. Thus, to paraphrase the former equivocator-in-chief, how polluted we are depends on what your definition of "pollution" is.

For now, Givens is sanguine. "This agency has long felt that this compound should be removed from the list of TRI chemicals, as several popular carbonated soft drinks contain phosphoric acid," he says. To be fair, the "de-listing" of phosphoric acid comes at a time when Louisiana's phosphorous-producing plants have reduced their toxic emission rates by 87 percent.

But, in the coming years, the new definitions are likely to cut against Louisiana. For example, chemicals found in several Western states were added to TRI list, Givens says, thus giving some of them worse rankings.

Closer to home, Givens notes that EPA will require Louisiana industries to report the release of dioxin compounds for the first time in this year's TRI data. Although most dioxins are low in toxicity, EPA has requested that they be reported in "mass units" rather than "risk-based" units, and in the same category as the highly toxic "2378" dioxin.

"This is going to look bad," he says.

The DEQ chief says the overall release of toxic chemicals into Louisiana's environment has declined by 79 percent since 1987. But critics say TRI data, like reported crime rates, should be taken with a grain of salt. TRI accounts for an estimated 5 percent of all releases and does not track some toxins at all. It does not include oil-field waste, which is classified as nonhazardous in Louisiana, despite the presence of toxins. Moreover, five of Louisiana's 64 parishes still do not meet federal air quality standards: East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Iberville, Ascension and Livingston.

The Louisiana Chemical Association says its members have spent billions of dollars over the last decade to improve the environment. Givens adds that "people lose sight of the progress that has been made."

Here's a different perspective: if people lose sight of environmental improvements, maybe it's because they can't overlook Gov. Mike Foster's campaigns against the environment. For example, one week after announcing Louisiana's improved TRI rank on April 11, Givens urged a House panel to bless a bill to end DEQ's required annual inspections of industry -- because his agency did not have enough money or staff to do the job. Well, the budget starts with the governor, who clearly does not place a high priority on policing polluters. Thankfully, an administration bill to require DEQ inspections of polluters only every three years was tabled by the House.

Meanwhile, Gov. Foster's own Web page invites prospective employers to survey Louisiana's progress by visiting the "environmental data warehouse" maintained by the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies (CESS) at Southern University. That's an unusual Web link for the business-friendly governor. The CESS report paints a surprisingly candid, and not altogether flattering, environmental picture of Louisiana.

"After rising for decades, toxic releases to air, water and deep-well injection are declining [in the Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor]. However, other emission trends are not going down. Ozone is still a problem in part of the Industrial Corridor," the report states.

The report adds that "due to the state's low educational attainment, Louisiana faces a real challenge in increasing public awareness of environmental risk and management."

It concludes: "If Louisiana is ... to become a recognized leader in the protection of the environment, natural resources, health, and the quality of life, then leaders must implement strategies which create investments in efficiency and renewables."

We agree. A temporary blip in a "partial" survey isn't enough. Foster and DEQ owe everyone a real plan to keep Louisiana out of the Toxic Top Ten -- no matter how you define it.

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