Louisiana Cleanup Rouses Opposition

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IN a state nationally known for its pervasive environmental problems, Louisiana lawmakers have decided that the price for cleaning up may be too expensive. In a recently concluded legislative session lawmakers cut back the state's besieged Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) budget by nearly $1 million."We don't know yet what the full impact of the budget cuts will be," says Gerel Giarruso, the DEQ's director of communications. "But, one way or the other, it's something we're going to feel. It's hard to say how it's all going to come down." Frequently rated as the nation's dirtiest state for its extensive air, water, and land pollution - much of which has emanated from the huge petrochemical and fertilizer industries - Louisiana has undergone a shift in recent years away from its image as a profligate polluter to a more environmentally aware place trying to clean up its act. Gov. Buddy Roemer, elected in 1987, made a cleaner environment one of the cornerstones of his successful campaign. In his administration the DEQ's annual budget bloomed to more than $12 million, and the agency simultaneously stepped up enforcement activities and fines against polluters. But in its newly aggressive stance, the DEQ has won many enemies in Louisiana, a fact made apparent by the number of lawmakers here supporting a funding reduction for the agency, while also criticizing its enforcement procedures. Calling the DEQ "unreasonable" in many of its demands, particularly with the sometimes limited amount of time it gives polluters to clean up pollution site violations, Sen. Willy Crain (D) of Monroe proposed a bill that would scuttle regulations calling for a wide variety of industries to install pollution control equipment. When environmentalists attacked the measure and the proposal to cut back DEQ funds, B. B. "Sixty" Rayburn (D) of Bogalusa, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told a top DEQ official that the state has "met your needs far greater than you've been able to spend. It just kind of irks me for people to say 'you're crippling the DEQ. State Rep. Kenneth Odinet (D) of Arabi, charged an environmental activist with dragging "this legislature through the mud" after she suggested that such legislation indicated the lawmakers were in the pockets of the oil industry. Senator Crain, meanwhile, said the DEQ was becoming too zealous with enforcement, claiming that "business in Louisiana will be at a competitive disadvantage" if the DEQ was given permission to upgrade and expand its regulatory functions. But the DEQ received its most unexpected blow this summer from Roemer himself, who told one reporter: "I like the progress we've made in 38 months. But there are some cases where zeal and attitudinal inflexibility don't make sense for the environment." Some legislative observers say many lawmakers are simply tired of angry calls from business and industry representatives in their districts who repeatedly complain about the DEQ's strict environmental guidelines in the oftentimes heavy fines it has levied against polluters. DEQ's supporters, however, say the real problem is that Louisiana has gone for so long without an effective environmental enforcement program that any action by the agency is viewed as something new and threatening. "The question now is whether we let big industry dictate environmental direction, or do we give the average citizen a say-so," says Rep. Kip Holden (D) of Baton Rouge, who adds that industry in Louisiana wants to have the freedom of violating pollution laws because they have "a complete disregard for what the public wants." After pro- and anti-DEQ lawmakers agreed to revise Crain's bill, many DEQ officials looked at this year's legislative session as wresting victory from the jaws of defeat. "It could have been worse," said the DEQ's Mr. Giarruso. "There was a lot of anti-environmental rhetoric on the part of the legislators and calls for cutting back our budget even more. We're still going to continue our efforts to clean up Louisiana, even though it's obvious now there's a lot of opposition out there."

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