Gulf Coast Communities Deserve Protection From Fossil Fuel Safety Threats

On the morning of June 3, residents of the town of Cameron, Louisiana, lost power when a temporary power generation fuel supply erupted in fire. Cameron is still being supplied with temporary electrical generation due to devastation caused by two major hurricanes, Laura and Delta, which came ashore back in 2020. Residents were trapped in the town of Cameron between a massive fire and a ferry that was inoperable without electricity – so they sat for hours beneath oak trees in the sweltering heat.

A short time later, about 30 miles north, lightning struck a massive tank at an oil refinery in Lake Charles, causing a blaze that emitted toxic black smoke and raged for over 14 hours. Many in our community were forced to evacuate or shelter in place. And, as is typical, we still don’t know what or how much toxic pollution was released even months on. Many evacuated residents weren’t even aware of the threat – that they were living so close to such danger.

But we are no strangers to chemical disasters here in Southwest Louisiana. Time and again, people say, “That’s just how things are here.” What’s worse, public officials and industry leaders often excuse these incidents with lazy, dangerous logic, claiming they can’t prevent every fossil fuel disaster. Public endangerment is a part of the business. Others pay a lot of lip service. But if we want to talk about protecting “disadvantaged communities” or achieving “energy security,” (that is, being protected from geopolitical threats) as many officials often say, then our public agencies need to make our health and safety a primary concern and move beyond words to action.

During late spring, U.S. Department of Energy officials traveled to Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana for an “energy justice” roadshow to discuss funding opportunities for disadvantaged communities on the front lines of environmental injustice, climate change and “energy security.” These meetings took place shortly after the two fires at fossil fuel facilities in Southwest Louisiana. However, not long after these meetings, the DOE announced two direct air capture projects that use technology to attempt to remove carbon dioxide pollution from the air, one in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and another in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Many lesser-known energy federal regulatory agencies, like the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, have already stated commitments to incorporating environmental justice into their decision-making process. Yet, despite their supposed dedication to upholding public health and safety from polluting and hazardous industries, we still see dangerous projects getting approved in some of the most vulnerable communities.

For example, despite fierce local opposition, FERC approved construction of the Driftwood LNG pipeline project in Southwest Louisiana. By fast-tracking this and other liquefied methane gas export projects, FERC is contributing to the increased risk of explosions and chemical leaks. Similarly, DOE has continued to approve new LNG export facilities in Southwest Louisiana.

Southwest Louisiana is a region of major environmental justice concern, as it’s already saturated with many massive and hyper-polluting fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities, while also being hit with a growing number of climate change-related disasters. Many community members believe that the region has become a “sacrifice zone” to extractive and polluting industries, from petrochemical companies to the more recent methane gas export buildout. There’s hardly a part of the coastal region of this state that isn’t colonized by pollution and the associated threats, like explosions.

In Southwest Louisiana alone, there are currently three existing methane gas export terminals, five that have been approved and four with pending applications. The petrochemical plants and oil and gas operations here have formed an industrial complex that’s larger than almost anywhere else in the country.

Yet, even when presented with evidence and the experience and concerns of local communities, agencies like FERC and PHMSA often refuse to enforce even the most basic of safety regulations. Worse, they have a history of hiding information from communities with a vested interest in what is happening at these facilities, claiming national security or proprietary trade secrets as a reason for stonewalling. A good example of this is the failure to release emergency response plans to the communities where they operate.

The need for emergency response plans isn’t an abstract concern. Three LNG export terminals in the Gulf Coast region have seen major problems in the last few years alone. In 2022, Freeport LNG in Texas had an explosion that shook the surrounding community. In 2018, after 10 years of safety concerns, Cheniere’s Sabine Pass LNG here in Southwest Louisiana had a major gas leak that could have easily resulted in a massive explosion. In March 2023, after months of concern from community members due to constant flaring and alarms sounding at Calcasieu Pass LNG, owner Venture Global revealed that faulty equipment had led to excess emissions, delaying their final commissioning and slowing their operations.

This is the reality of living in a “blast zone” – a real term for the area around an LNG facility that would be impacted by an explosion. While PHMSA and other regulatory agencies have studied the impacts of an explosion on the internal operations of an LNG terminal, to date there is little information about the risks they pose to surrounding neighborhoods and communities. This is unacceptable, and communities are starting to speak out. Earlier this year, a coalition of concerned Gulf residents and activists sent a letter to both FERC and PHMSA, in part demanding transparency about the risks that LNG terminals pose to families and workers.

Communities across Southwest Louisiana and the industrial Gulf South are refusing to accept our health and safety as acceptable collateral for industries’ negligent operations, and we refuse to accept our governments’ apathetic behavior that allows these very preventable accidents to become routine.

Our demands to FERC and PHMSA are clear: We want frequent inspections, worker safety assurances, access to information on hazardous materials, the ability to submit anonymous concerns, access to evacuation plans and, most of all, we want transparency. We deserve to know the risks threatening our communities and how our public officials have planned to protect us. Judging by the incredibly disappointing response to the fires on June 3, it is clear that more must be done to protect our families and neighbors.

Environmental justice is not simply a talking point or a box to be checked; it requires real action that centers human dignity and community safety above corporate profits. President Joe Biden has taken some steps in the right direction to hold agencies accountable for incorporating environmental justice into their decisions. Still, agencies across government must take meaningful steps to ensure that their actions align with their stated values, and they must be willing to intervene when state and local governments are unable or unwilling to do so.

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