How a History of Environmental Disasters Fuels Livingston’s Fear of Carbon Capture | Environment


Livingston Parish Council member Tracy Girlinghouse grew up about a mile from what was once the site of Combustion Inc. in the Walker area.

Operating largely as a waste oil recovery facility from the 1960s through the 1980s, the company became infamous when a class action lawsuit alleged it was endangering residents’ health by improperly disposing of huge amounts of dangerous chemicals; it has become a federally designated “Superfund site” for cleaning up hazardous waste.

Girlinghouse recalls a childhood spent swimming in nearby West Colyell Creek – where toxic chemicals may have flowed.

“I don’t know what it’s going to do to me, what it’s going to do to me, what it’s going to do to me later,” he said. “Everything doesn’t hurt you as long as it doesn’t hurt you.”

Girlinghouse recalled those memories at a recent council meeting as members considered adopting a moratorium on carbon capture injection wells. Residents of this parish, like many others in the area, are trying to stop a influx of carbon capture projects planned for the region, such as two sites planned at Holden and Maurepas Lake.

Carbon capture and sequestration is the process by which an industrial plant traps its carbon dioxide emissions and then buries them deep underground in injection wells.

Opponents frequently cite the legacy of disastrous hazardous waste disposal in the parish and fear history will repeat itself. The next potential disaster might not happen immediately, they say, but the parish has been burned down – figuratively and literally – by industrial accidents for the past 40 years.

The projects’ business leaders said their carbon capture technology is proven, safe and effective, but so far, Livingston residents seem unconvinced.

Council Chairman Jeff Ard echoed the sentiments of his constituents ahead of the final vote that halted carbon capture for at least a year in the parish.

“I, for one, am tired of Livingston Parish being everyone’s dumping ground. I’m sick of it,” he said. “We have the dump. We had Cecos. It’s time for us to stand up and say, “We don’t want your trash anymore. And if you’re going to impose it on us, you’re going to pay us to bring it here.

“The right questions weren’t asked”

Cecos International has repeatedly appeared at public meetings in recent weeks as residents question the safety of carbon sequestration and the potential impact it could have on their communities.

When that company came to town, residents heard a similar story about safety, said Albany Mayor Eileen Bates-McCarroll, who invoked Cecos in public remarks regarding the future of water wells in parish.

“We were told how wonderful and safe this project would be,” she said. “We now have a national litter hazard in our community that should never have existed. The right questions weren’t being asked. There weren’t enough studies because I’m sure if they had done, they would never have been allowed.”

The Cecos hazardous waste facility near the Interstate 12 interchange in Livingston was the source of repeated complaints during its 13 years of operation before the state ordered it closed.

The EPA found “more than 1,700 violations of federal resource conservation and recovery law” between November 1980 and January 1986, according to a Morning Advocate report at the time.

Violations at the site included “burying flammable waste and hazardous waste containing liquids, failure to properly analyze hazardous waste, and unauthorized piles of waste,” the article said. Notably, site contaminants were discovered “up to 70 feet below the site and within 30 to 35 feet of major aquifers that provide drinking water to residents of the Livingston area,” the report continues.

Expert witnesses in an expensive class action lawsuit have agreed that materials handled at the site “were capable of aggravating pre-existing respiratory problems and causing upper respiratory distress, including dizziness, coughing, runny eyes, nasal congestion, and nausea”.

The lawsuit was filed in 1987 and in 2011 the parties reached a settlement of $29.5 million.

Combustion Inc.

Residents also fear that the sequestered carbon will jeopardize homes near the sites – and possibly ruin Lake Maurepas as a sanctuary for fishermen and boaters.

Girlinghouse said he knew he was in the danger zone near Combustion Inc. But to this day, he doesn’t know how it may have affected his life.

Combsution Inc.’s oil recovery and wastewater treatment facility in the Walker area collected waste oil sent by pipeline from the petroleum hydrocarbon recycling plant located near the company.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the site accumulated approximately 3 million gallons of sludge, oil and sewage in earthen pits that have contaminated soil and groundwater.

In 1996, a “government assessment found that residents of the area were exposed to chemicals through the air, skin absorption, soil, and smoke from three on-site fires” and suffered from “sinus disorders, hoarseness and rashes,” among other ailments, according to an article from the time.

The researchers had profiled 211 people in 62 households in the area. Nineteen of the 62 homes had more than one incident of cancer, the article said.

In this class action, Combustion Inc. has settled $131 million; $4.5 million was spent on the construction of the Livingston Literacy and Technology Centerwhich opened in 2007.

The Superfund site where Combustion Inc. once stood resulted in a $12 million cleanup effort.

1982 train derailment

As the fight against carbon capture has unfolded over the past month, residents of Livingston Parish have repeatedly and fearfully referred to a relatively recent disaster involving technology in Satartia, Mississippi. In 2020, a pipeline carrying compressed carbon dioxide ruptured. More than 40 people had to be hospitalized and more than 300 had to be evacuated.

This remains a crucial concern for local residents: how can companies ensure the safety of CO2 during transport over long distances?

In the town of Livingston, some residents may recall another type of crisis involving the transportation of critical materials that plagued the country for decades.

On September 28, 1982, around 5:12 a.m., a central Illinois Gulf freight train with a drinking crew derailed just north of Livingston City Hall.

Of the 43 cars that derailed, 34 contained hazardous materials or flammable petroleum products. Many were punctured, then burned and exploded, releasing toxic fumes and smoke across the city.

As the tank cars went up in smoke, some first responders couldn’t decipher the chemical warning symbols in the blaze, so they didn’t know which fires to put out with water, what to spray with foam and what let it burn.

Miraculously, no one died in the disaster. About 3,000 people within an 8 km radius have been evacuated from their homes, some for weeks. Nineteen residences and other buildings were destroyed or severely damaged.

In total, more than 200,000 gallons of toxic chemicals spilled and leached into the ground.

Short-term emergency cleanup gave way to messy and inevitable lawsuits. Reconstruction followed, along with years of health monitoring. It wasn’t until 2015, more than three decades after the derailment, that the shafts were plugged and the monitoring station began to close.

“Permanent and Proven”

Representatives of Air Products, the company that plans to store CO2 under Lake Maurepas, and Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, whose project will store carbon under pressure near Holden, said during public meetings that their technology was safe and proven, and that their companies have a good track record.

At a special meeting of the Livingston Parish Council to discuss the plans, business leaders presented PowerPoint presentations showing how the technology works, why they chose Louisiana for sequestration, and the safeguards they will have in place to protect the surrounding community.

“Carbon sequestration is permanent, proven and an environmentally sound disposal of CO2,” Nile Bolan of Air Products said at the meeting.

Brian Landry, vice president of political affairs for the Louisiana Chemical Association, has also championed carbon capture to Livingston’s audience on more than one occasion.

“The permits required for these projects are the strictest in the United States and constant monitoring is required,” he said at a recent board meeting.

But discussions of security, and even the economic benefits the projects could bring to the parish, did not sway council members or many voters. After discussing his childhood spent near a hazardous waste site, Girlinghouse said there was unlikely to be any amount of money he would trade for peace of mind.

“Ascension has a lot of industry. They have a lot more income, a lot more money to do things,” he said. “I say, good for them. Because I wouldn’t want these plants of (this) size in my garden.


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