Battle over pollution stirs the air above Louisiana's capital city

A battle over air pollution has darkened the political climate in Louisiana's capital city. The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) charges that Rollins Environmental Services, a waste-management company, violated Louisiana's pollution law when its incinerators malfunctioned in the summer of 1985 and repeatedly released black smoke into the residential and commercial sections of Baton Rouge.

Environmentalists and community leaders here insist the black clouds existed long before the legal war between Rollins and the DEQ began.

Testimony presented during a heated, two-week hearing last summer portrayed Rollins as a ``flagrant abuser'' of environmental rules. The emissions from the Rollins incinerator were characterized as one of the worst examples of air pollution in the United States.

The clash intensified last month when a state hearing officer dismissed a series of DEQ charges against Rollins and found the company guilty of only two violations. Hearing officer John Koury levied a $15,000 fine against Rollins, but the fine was later waived when the firm agreed to provide an air-conditioning system for a local Head Start center.

Mr. Koury's decision prompted an outpouring of angry community reaction.

``It's obvious to me that letting Rollins off so lightly is a white wash,'' says John deGravelles, president of Citizens for a Clean Environment. ``Koury obviously chose to completely ignore the state's witnesses.... His reasons sounded more like a closing argument for Rollins than they did a reasoned opinion of a judge.''

In early November, Louisiana Attorney General William Guste Jr. announced that he would personally appeal Koury's waiver of the fine, calling it ``arbitrary, capricious, and manifestly erroneous,'' adding that ``it's a complete failure to deal with the severity of the violations, the number of violations, and with the history of violations at the plant.''

Mr. Guste said the decision to waive the $15,000 fine in lieu of installing an air-conditioning system was ``nothing more than a slap on the wrist for a very bad corporate citizen.''

Representatives of Rollins have expressed satisfaction with the Koury decision, claiming the DEQ has hounded the firm in a ``campaign vendetta.''

``My client has been vindicated,'' said Emile Rolfs III, attorney for Rollins, after the Koury hearing.

Mr. Rolfs has complained that the DEQ is trying to punish Rollins for Koury's decision. ``There was a minor incinerator upset,'' he said. ``It was properly responded to. It was an environmentally insignificant event. The resulting regular reaction was far out of proportion to the actual incident.''

Testimony indicated that smoke from waste burned by Rollins lasted for more than 20 minutes on some occasions.

Although Koury said Rollins was guilty of surpassing a state law that allows an industry to emit smoke for up to six minutes an hour, he rejected the contention that his original $15,000 fine was too low.

``The average smoke violation fine is $1,857,'' said Koury. He says he believes the DEQ prosecution of Rollins is the wrong approach to an environmental dilemma. ``Finding violations is not the answer to the environmental problems in Louisiana. Finding compliance is,'' he said.

Lawyers for both sides say they hope a decision on the appeal of Koury's action will be rendered in December.

The Rollins controversy is only the latest in a series of environmental battles in Baton Rouge, where oil companies began siting refineries in the 1920s and '30s.

The sprawling petrochemical industries that have been the backbone of the city's economy since the 1930s are now in decline.

Pollution controls imposed in the early 1970s have begun to reduce the amount of pollution here, but many local residents do not feel the air cleanup has progressed rapidly enough.

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