Environment joins budget at top of Louisiana's problem list. Environment agency's budget, gypsum dumping are hot issues

A projected $400 million budget deficit for 1987 is not the only thing troubling Louisiana lawmakers as they meet in special session this week. The state's environment has emerged as a hot issue, and some say that it will stay that way for the rest of the decade. Most of the controversy centers around two issues: the consequences of Draconian cuts in the budget of the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and a federal Environmental Protection Agency plan to approve dumping gypsum into the Mississippi River.

The last few years have been a chaotic period for the DEQ. As lawmakers reduced general appropriation bills, the DEQ lost more than $8 million in annual operating funds. The department's yearly budget has been slashed from $10.3 million in 1982 to $1.3 million this year.

Lawmakers last weekend made headway in easing the DEQ's budget crunch. The House of Representatives voted to give the department taxes collected from manufacturing companies that produce hazardous wastes.

``This money is needed, and it will help keep the DEQ afloat,'' said state Rep. Manuel D. Fernandez (D) of Chalmette, who introduced the bill. Representative Fernandez estimated that such hazardous-waste taxes generate $3.5 million to $4 million annually.

Some observers have also suggested that the department may be forced to increase the fees and penalties paid to the DEQ by certain companies. But DEQ Secretary Pat Norton has dismissed the proposal as ``unfair.'' Ms. Norton said, ``I don't believe we have room to raise fees any more just to offset further budget cuts.''

The maneuvering over the DEQ's budget pales next to the controversy concerning the proposal to dump waste gypsum (an ingredient in the manufacturing of fertilizer) into the Mississippi River. Since the EPA first announced the project to dump more than 12 million tons of gypsum into the river, environmentalists and chemical industry supporters have clashed over the issue.

``From both the human health and economic viewpoints, these proposed discharges are an unacceptable risk to a state suffering from health and fiscal problems,'' state Attorney General William Guste Jr. said in a letter to the EPA. ``We have serious concerns ... about the effects of radioactive exposure to the people of this region [and] about the effects of heavy metals in our food chain, particularly seafoods.''

Chemical industry spokesmen, though, say if they are not allowed to dump the gypsum, they may be forced to end their Louisiana operations.

``It would be a shame, but that's what we'll have to do,'' said a representative of Freeport Chemical, one of the four companies upriver from Baton Rouge and New Orleans who have petitioned for the dumping. The other three companies are Agrico Chemical Corporation, Arcadian Corporation, and Beker Industries.

Industry spokesmen point to a study conducted by the Gulf South Research Institute (GSRI) which said that if the companies were forced to shut down, Louisiana would lose more than 7,100 jobs with a total annual payroll of $169 million.

Until 1983, the four fertilizer companies dumped their gypsum into nearby landfills. But because of Louisiana's marshy soil, much of the gypsum - which contains low levels of radioactive uranium and radium - has seeped into the ground.

In addition, two of the companies claim they are running out of extra land for waste disposal and do not know what to do with the tons of gypsum they have already stored in years past.

On Dec. 13 the members of the state House of Representatives voted unanimously to block any permit allowing for the dumping of gypsum into the river, despite the crowded condition of the waste sites. The bill is expected to be passed quickly by the state Senate.

The bill is considered to be a major victory for Louisiana's environmentalists, even though DEQ Secretary Norton said she was worried about environmental problems in the state being solved by simply being ``moved around.'' She recommended a thorough study of the gypsum-dumping proposal.

The EPA representative on a special task force that is working to iron out the differences between the environmentalists and the chemical companies said last week the group hoped to arrive at a final solution concerning the gypsum dumping by February 1987.

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