Tuesday, May 28, 2024

LaRose: Opinions vary but data definitive on departing DEQ Secretary Chuck Carr Brown

by BIZ Magazine

It’s not unusual that a state agency leader leaves during the last year of a governor’s term, so the exit of Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Carr Brown doesn’t jump out as out of the ordinary. Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson resigned to enter the governor’s race, but there’s no indication Brown has any such aspirations once he steps down March 31.

How effective Brown was at his job when it came to ensuring the quality of Louisiana’s environment depends on who you ask. From a strictly empirical viewpoint, most third-party analyses show the state hasn’t moved far from the bottom of rankings in areas such as air pollution, water pollution or standards aimed at improving both.

Still, Gov. John Bel Edwards offered high praise for Brown when he announced his departure last week. 

“Chuck has done a fine job at LDEQ, successfully pushing for technology improvements at the department and being a key figure in the development and implementation of our coastal master plan and climate action plan,” Edwards said in a statement. “After more than seven years of faithful service to our state as secretary, he is ready for new challenges.”

Brown was an undersecretary in the department for former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. He came to LDEQ from Exxon, where he worked for more than two decades. That corporate background has long troubled many environmental activists, who say Brown did more to expedite the permit approval process for business than to protect the public’s interest. 

“That should have disqualified him from taking the position,” Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said via email. “Given his financial and professional ties to the petrochemical industry, it’s not surprising that, while at DEQ, he acted as if he still worked for Exxon. He did the bidding of polluters every day, every hour he was in office.’’ 

Rolfes singled out as a “low point” for Brown when he referred to community leaders in St. John the Baptist Parish as “fear mongers” for alerting neighbors about pollution from the Denka plant near LaPlace. According to The Times-Picayune and ProPublica, the facility is the only one in the country that emits chloroprene, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers a “likely” cancer causing substance.

The EPA has not set legally enforceable levels for chloroprene emissions, but it has established a safe threshold, the news report said. At six air monitoring stations near Denka’s plant, the safe level was exceeded in 2019 by amounts 2.5 to 17 times what is allowable.

Rather than call for accountability from Denka, Brown questioned the EPA’s figures.     

“The Department of Justice is now involved in that situation, a clear sign that Dr. Brown was an abject failure for the people of Louisiana,” Rolfes said. “I would not be surprised if this hasty resignation is a sign that something deeper is wrong.”

The next career move for Brown is particularly of interest, she added, noting that state ethics law prevents him from returning to an industry job for two years. 

“The revolving door he’s gone back and forth through must, by law, remain closed,” Rolfes said.

Neither Edwards nor Brown indicate where he’ll go next, although he touted his accomplishments in the statement from the governor’s office. 

“I think the improvement in Louisiana’s air quality has been my proudest achievement,” Brown said. “This state is in attainment with all air quality standards for the EPA’s criteria pollutants except for two small areas in two parishes that the department is working to bring into attainment for sulfur dioxide.”

Different EPA numbers paint a contrasting picture when it comes to Brown’s stewardship of the LDEQ. It should be noted the EPA itself does not rank states based on pollution. 

U.S. News and World Report used EPA data to rank the most polluted states; Louisiana placed 50th based on 2021 information that weighed toxic chemical pollution and the impact of that pollution on residents’ long-term health.  

A report from The Hill cited a January 2022 study by Tulane University that found Louisiana had the nation’s second-highest number of cancer cases from exposure to high levels of air pollution. The authors included data from “Cancer Alley,” the corridor along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

In terms of water pollution, Louisiana was fourth-worst in the U.S. based on research from two environmental groups. Its findings were based on toxic substances discharged into waters in 2020. 

The two Republican lawmakers who lead environmental committees in the Louisiana Legislature shared strong praise for Brown’s tenure at LDEQ. Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan of Lafayette, who leads the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, described the outgoing secretary as a “consummate professional.” 

“He was always responsive to inquiries from me, our committee members and staff, and provided valuable insight and information in his testimony regarding the many bills that have come through our committee,” Coussan said in an email.

Sen. Eddie Lambert of Gonzales, who leads the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, told the Illuminator in an interview that Brown’s background in industry was a benefit to his role with LDEQ. 

“Being from industry, you realize some of the things on the industrial side that other people don’t see,” Lambert said, “and what you need to do and address.”

The senator also commended Brown for his emphasis on recycling. Yet a 2021 study sponsored by the aluminum container business Ball Corp., placed Louisiana 49th among states for its rate of recycling. Local governments often dictate recycling policy and cover the cost, so it’s not fair to dump all the trash at Brown’s feet. 

A resolution Lambert sponsored last year called on LDEQ to study strategies to increase plastic recycling. The department submitted its report to the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on the March 10 deadline. 

Additional analysis in the “How They Vote” scorecard provides context for the lawmakers’ opinions on Brown. The effort – a joint endeavor of the Louisiana Budget Project, Together Louisiana, the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy and the Power Coalition for Equity & Justice – looks at how legislators voted on what the groups considered important legislation in the 2021 session.

Coussan and Lambert both sponsored environmental proposals that were deemed “bad for Louisiana,” according to the scorecard.

Coussan’s bill, which became law, created a voluntary self-auditing program for companies under LDEQ scrutiny. Lambert was successful in getting a proposal approved that removed plastics from the definition of solid-waste management and pulled LDEQ oversight from experimental technologies that involve burning and toxic chemicals management. 

When it came to their votes in support of clean air, land and water, the scorecard gave Coussan a 29% grade. Lambert earned a mark of 7%, the lowest for the entire Senate.

Greg LaRose is editor of Louisiana Illuminator and has covered news in Louisiana for more than 30 years.

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