stories from the Public Lab community
Dear Friends and Supporters:
With a challenging economy and the impacts of the ongoing pandemic affecting everyday life, we’re grateful for your continued support and engagement with Public Lab.
Unfortunately, these are difficult times for all of us. Due to funding challenges, we have made the tough but necessary decision to scale back programming and take certain services offline. We are doing our best to sustain core programming and support for our community. And Public Lab needs your help.
Given the current situation, we’ve made important changes to our programs. These include:
We are dedicated to serving this community, and hope to resume programming to its regular capacity over the next several months. If you’re able, please consider making a gift today to help sustain the Public Lab team, and ongoing community support and educational outreach.
Over the last 2+ years, we’ve been reminded of how interconnected we all are. Thank you for being part of our community. Without you, none of this is possible.
Be Safe and Well,
Jordan Macha Executive Director, Public Lab
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"You can see a lot of impact," Travis told the reporter, as he described the Purple Air monitors that the Public Lab team has set up outside of homes in St. James parish. These small-scale, inexpensive monitors capture ambient levels of industrial pollutants, where state and federal agencies have failed to monitor.
Travis was featured alongside Sharon Lavigne, an internationally recognized environmental activist, who has spearheaded the environmental movement in Louisiana's River Parishes through her organization RISE St. James. For years, Sharon and her community have fought petrochemical expansion in their community. And, some small battles have been won. The proposed Formosa Plastics facility has been halted until a full Environmental Impact Statement has been conducted, a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers that signaled the Biden Administration's willingness to take action and spurred Public Lab's Game-Over-Formosa project. But with new petrochemical facilities continually slated for development and state leaders who refute industrial culpability in the region's health crisis, the fight is far from over.
To complicate the matter further, Governor Edwards has proposed a solution to curb carbon emissions that environmental activists claim may make matters worse: blue hydrogen. Low carbon, or "blue," hydrogen is produced by using carbon capture technology to sequester greenhouse gasses emitted in the production process and store them deep underground. The result is liquid fuel that leaves behind only water.
An opportunity to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions while increasing industrial investment? For a quickly-eroding coastal state, it sounds too good to be true.
And, in October of last year, Edwards unveiled plans for a $4.5 billion blue hydrogen plan to be constructed in Ascension Parish, near St. James. As the first carbon capture project in the state and one of the largest in the world, the facility will "help the state of Louisiana play a key role in the energy transition," Air Products and Chemicals spokesperson tells NBC news.
Yet, environmental activists argue that blue hydrogen technology is not the solution many have claimed it to be. Rather, carbon capture and sequestration is mere green-washing, many claim, designed to keep the fossil fuel industry entrenched in Louisiana's economy for decades to come, as renewable energy sources gain popularity.
This is because the process to make blue hydrogen is extremely energy-intensive. A recent study found that, throughout its lifecycle, blue hydrogen may emit more greenhouse gases than traditional natural gas. This is because it retains only 70-75% of the potential heat stored in the natural gas from which it was derived. Another study found burning blue hydrogen to be 20% worse for the climate, since it emits methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent that CO2.
What's more, the fossil fuel industry threatens Louisianans' way of life, not only by contributing to climate change, but by the immediate environmental degradation.Webs of pipelines have damaged the coastline are prone to leaks. To make blue hydrogen, both extracted natural gas and methane waste must pass through "reformers, pipelines and ships, providing added opportunities for leaks." Carbon capture, New Orleans one resident tells NBC news, is just an excuse "to ignore the fact that we have to stop using fossil fuels."
In Louisiana, citizen-scientists and professional scientists alike capture excessively high levels of air pollutants every day. Yet, state leaders draw public attention away from the localized environmental issues at hand with flashy new technology that many doubt to be an effective remedy for climate change, nor a safe, long-term solution for our state.
As emissions reductions targets draw ever near, both policy and technological solutions will continue to emerge. Yet, a just transition to clean energy means advancing climate solutions that work for everyone, without introducing or maintaining sources of environmental degradation. For state and local leaders, this means centering the voices of BIPOC and other historically marginalized groups in the decision-making processes. It's time to follow the lead of the locals, asking community members what they would like to see for the future of their home.
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During the summer, our fellowship team logged ambient odors on field sheets to accompany data from our gas monitors. As we are closing up the fellowship and looking through the data, we want to know what quality of odors are coming into our community from a nearby landfill - and if there are patterns or trends in the type, frequency or accompanying factors.
In the past, we defined odors like decomposing waste, as "green waste" or "trash," which are subjective descriptors. I was inspired to reduce the odors to their basic components, remembering a toy my daughter loved when she was younger. It was a perfume science lab, wherein you could make fragrances using approximately 6 different base odors (vanilla, lemon, sandalwood, etc).
I identified the base odors that emanate from a nearby landfill:
Odors that we used to describe as "kitchen trash" became, "sweet" and "rot" because those are the primary components of that particular odor. Instead of "wastewater sludge," we described the smell as "fecal" and "ammonia."
With this method, we can enter data into categories on a spreadsheet that we can analyze at a later time:
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Lead Image: Map of industrial facilities in St. James Parish. Found on The Advocate, courtesy of Justin Kray of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade
The St. James parish alongside the Mississippi river in southern Louisiana is a historically black and now elder community with 15.6% of residents living below the poverty line. Many of the residents trace their lineage back to the enslaved families who worked the plantations along the banks of the Mississippi. The land is filled with historic and sacred sights including the unmarked graves of slaves. For years, St. James Parish has been extremely overburdened by industrial pollution. The 258 square miles of St. James hosts no less than 11 industrial facilities that are large enough to be required to report their pollution to the federal EPA each year. These include refineries, a fertilizer plant, a steel company, an asphalt company, and several chemical companies. The list of chemicals emitted into the air, water and soil in St. James and surrounding areas include cancer causing dioxins, asbestos, chlorine, lead, mercury, acids, benzene, toluene, methanol, ethylene, and hydrogen sulfide to name a few (the EPA’s TRI database report for St. James Parish, 2020).
For years, the community, already struggling with extreme pollution, has been fighting to keep out new industry, particularly one plant called Formosa Plastics slated to be a 2,500 acre project just one mile from an elementary school (Center for Biological Diversity). As a company, Formosa has been a historic bad actor (see follow up post on Formosa Around the World). Their Texas plant released “thousands of plastic pellets and other pollutants into Lavaca Bay and other nearby waterways.” These spills were brought to court in a private citizens suit by Dianne Wilson and nonprofit Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid resulting in a $50 million settlement, “the largest in U.S. history involving a private citizen's lawsuit against an industrial polluter under federal clean air and water laws” (Texas Tribune December 3, 2019). Formosa plants around the world have also experienced several explosions causing community evacuations, major chemical releases, and even worker deaths (see follow up post).
On August 18, 2021 the US Army Corps of Engineers announced it would “require a full “environmental impact statement” for the massive petrochemical complex Formosa Plastics proposes to build in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The decision is a major victory for opponents of the plant, who sued to block the project in January 2020 and convinced the Army Corps to suspend its permit” in fall of 2019 (Center for Biological Diversity). An impact statement can take anywhere from 51 days to 3 years to do. For this statement, they’ll be “required to assess the impact of a proposed project on the physical, cultural, and human environments affected by the proposed project… [including] provid[ing] a baseline for understanding the current environmental situation in relation to the Proposed Action.” The EIS should also include air, water, historical and economic impacts of the project (AmericanBar.org). The EIS should also trigger a new comment period for community members.
The aim for this project is to regularly collect particulate matter and other air quality monitoring data to grow the body of evidence on the existing levels of pollution to show the pollution burden already borne by the St. James Parish community. We aim for this information to be used to educate the community, and provide scientific evidence for why further pollution sources such as the Formosa Plastics, should not be developed in this community.
The goals of this project are to:
A: Regularly collect particulate matter air quality monitoring data to grow the body of evidence on the existing levels of pollution to show the burden already borne by the Donaldsonville and St. James Parish communities. We aim for this information to be used to educate the community, and provide scientific evidence for why further pollution sources such as the Formosa Plastics, should not be developed in this community.
B: Regularly share project updates including monitoring methods, tools, challenges, data and questions on Public Lab and in other project identified spaces as appropriate.
C: Work towards advocacy around the air pollution issue in Donaldsonville and St. James Parish by working to understand local permits, zoning, and legal landscape in aim of gathering information for the upcoming Environmental Impact Statement and community input for the open comment period.
D: Work towards project pass off and longevity by focusing on communications materials around the monitoring results, advocacy information, and how people can get involved and monitor. We will use this to put together information sessions, as well as pamphlets and print materials.
Travis London is the cousin to the late Louisiana activist, Alberta Hasten-president of Louisiana Environmental Justice Community Organization Coalition. He has worked alongside Sharon Lavigne, Rise For St James, and a legal team to delay Formosa’s construction in St. James. He has also had victories in organizing in Louisiana for Medicaid expansion, higher salaries for teachers, and halting a compressor station from being too close to a neighborhood. In 2020, Travis appeared on a Netflix series alongside Diane Wilson on the show Dirty Money: Port Comfort episode, where Diane won the largest settlement from an individual lawsuit in environmental history. Alongside his local work, Travis works to help 5 Northeastern states near the Ohio River fight against the Mountaineer NGL project, and has organized for various causes in El Salvador, India, Africa, and other places around the world. Travis London is the 2018 Ascension Parish ICON Award winner and the Louisiana Economic Development’s Business and Fashion Expo Prize Winner.
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We are recovering from Hurricane Ida, which hit Grand Isle, Lafourche, Terrebonne, Lower Plaquemines, Grand Isle / Lafitte, LaPlace, St James, and entire the New Orleans area as a powerful Cat 5.
Gulf communities are going need a lot of help in the days and weeks to come, please consider a generous donation to any of these organizations:
"Gulf South for a Green New Deal Community Controlled Fund (GS4GND CCF) promotes just transitions away from extractive practices while dismantling oppressive structures which harm our communities and, ultimately, our ecology. We believe people on and of the land should control what happens to the land; the people of the South must control what happens in the South. This regenerating, community-controlled fund provides resources to foster power and promote togetherness in the region and exists to restore communities and to honor the legacy of strength and resistance in the Gulf South." [ Social media graphics from GCCLP: ]
Zion Travelers Cooperative Center
Imagine Water Works (Click here to donate ) - "Imagine Water Works is reimagining the future through art, science, and human connection. Our core focus areas are water management, climate justice, and disaster readiness and response / mutual aid." Donations are not tax deductible, but if you need to make a tax-deductible donation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The United Houma Nation (Click here to donate) - "The United Houma Nation is composed of very proud and independent people who have close ties to the water and land of their ancestors." The Houma community is going to get hit hard by IDA and will need a lot of support in the coming days.
LEAN (Click here to donate) "The purpose of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) is to foster cooperation and communication between individual citizens and corporate and government organizations in an effort to assess and mend the environmental problems in Louisiana. LEAN's goal is the creation and maintenance of a cleaner and healthier environment for all of the inhabitants of this state."
Waterwise (Click here to donate) - "The mission of Water Wise Gulf South is to empower individuals, neighborhoods, and marginalized communities to manage stormwater, thereby reducing localized flooding and providing many other benefits. We promote community-driven, ecologically-based solutions, known as green infrastructure, to infiltrate, filter, and detain stormwater runoff and improve water quality."
Foundation for Louisiana (Click here to donate) - "Foundation for Louisiana unites philanthropists, committed organizations, and caring residents to address the most critical needs facing Louisiana and our entire country. FFL is a social justice philanthropic intermediary founded in 2005 to invest in the immediate recovery of Louisiana's communities after Hurricane Katrina."
Lowlander Center (Click here to donate) - "The Lowlander Center supports lowland communities and places, both inland and coastal, for the benefit of both people and the environment."
Vessel Project (venmo @vesselprojectla) - Vessel Project "mission is to provide relief for our community, mutual aid and disaster relief. We are vessels of love and we want to project that love onto every person we come in contact with." Vessel Project is based in Lake Charles, LA and working to help families recover from the 2022 hurricane season.
Another Gulf is Possible (Click here to donate) - "We will distribute donations to support vulnerable families and communities impacted by Hurricane Ida. Another Gulf Is Possible has two Just Recovery vehicles ready to provide mutual aid for essential needs, repairs, and supplies." They also have an excellentIda Resource mobilization page.
Southern Solidarity is a grassroots, community-based group of volunteers in solidarity with the unhoused in their quest toward liberation. We organize the delivery of food, medical resources and basic needs directly to the unhoused in the downtown area of New Orleans because the government has not filled this need. We are influenced by anti-imperialist principles and mobilized by a black queer woman. SOLIDARITY NOT CHARITY. Donate here.
Here are a couple articles worth your time today:
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