The Intersection of Pollution, Tax Breaks, and Public Health in Louisiana

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by | Mar 19, 2024

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Toxic air emissions have been casting a grim shadow over Louisiana, with research highlighting a disturbing link between the state’s industrial pollution and a surge in low-weight and pre-term births. Expanding the scope of this discussion is the state’s policy of extending tax breaks to local plastics manufacturers. Despite mounting evidence of their significant environmental footprint, these plants continue to garner fiscal benefits, creating a critical policy paradox.

According to the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) report, 64% of plastics manufacturing plants built or expanded since 2012 received subsidies totaling $9 billion—84% violated air pollution limits. This total does not include federal tax breaks for oil and gas extraction, which supplies the primary ingredients of plastics. Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program grants certain manufacturers two renewable five-year exemptions from paying 80% to 100% of local taxes.

Facilities

EIP analyzed state and federal records pertaining to 50 plants producing primary chemical components for plastics. These plants have been newly constructed or expanded across the United States since 2012.

In defining “plastics plants” for the report, the researchers focused on facilities engaged in manufacturing major chemical constituents utilized in plastic production, excluding the molding of final products such as plastic utensils or toys. This definition includes plants producing ethylene and propylene, which are fundamental ingredients for various plastic types. The study examined facilities producing polyethylene and polypropylene, utilized in items like plastic bags, milk containers, food packaging, and other receptacles, along with PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and PET (polyethylene terephthalate), commonly used in packaging and water bottles.

The analysis encompasses 15 plants involved in plastics resin manufacturing, 27 ethane “crackers” – many of which also produce other plastic precursors or resins – and eight plants manufacturing other essential components utilized in plastics manufacturing.

Tax Breaks for Polluters

In 2016, Together Louisiana, a nonprofit organization, published a “Costly and Unusual” report focusing on the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program. The report revealed that over a decade, the program’s tax breaks resulted in a loss of $16.7 billion in revenue for local governments. While the program potentially generated some jobs, Together Louisiana concluded that the costs to taxpayers were $535,343 per job. The organization found that the state was subsidizing corporations at a rate five times higher than the national average for states.

According to EIP research manager Alexandra Shaykevich, co-author of the report, most Louisiana facilities failed to comply with their permits and meet hiring goals agreed to in accepting tax breaks under the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program.

“In Louisiana, there’s an environmental justice component,” she said. “According to our analysis, close to 600,000 people live within three miles of these plants, and about two-thirds of them, 66%, are communities of color. That number gets a lot higher in certain places, including in Louisiana, where 95, 90% of communities of color are located,” including along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The Environmental Health Reports and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences experts strongly advocate for a balance between industrial tax incentives and stringent environmental and public health standards. Ten new plastics manufacturing plants and 17 expansion projects are proposed for construction over the next five years.

Extensive Impact

The extent of the plastic industry’s impact on the public health of residents remains unclear due to inadequate monitoring of pollution releases, including from upsets, leaks, and accidents. Many manufacturing plants lack fenceline monitoring devices between the facilities and nearby neighborhoods, which could reveal the community’s exposure to toxic chemicals. This deficiency in monitoring leads to significant under-reporting of emissions. According to the EPA documents, air monitors at seven plastics plants examined in this study detected benzene levels at the fencelines between the plants and the community in 2020 and 2021 that ranged from three times to more than 14 times higher than previously known, based on underreporting by the companies and computer modeling.

The impact on local communities, primarily composed of people of color, is severe. Those living within a 3-mile radius of these plants face significant environmental challenges, as these facilities frequently fail to adhere to their permit requirements. In 2021, the 50 plastic plants emitted an estimated 63 million tons of greenhouse gases, equivalent to the emissions of over 15 coal-fired power plants. Additionally, they released 471,744 pounds of benzene, a known carcinogen, 27,923 tons of nitrogen oxide contributing to smog, and 20,182 tons of carbon monoxide, which can cause headaches and dizziness.

A recent study published in Environmental Research Health explored the connection between toxic air pollution and adverse birth outcomes in Louisiana, a topic previously unexplored. The study revealed a significant correlation between polluted areas and increased low birth weight and preterm birth risks. In heavily polluted regions, residents faced a 25% higher risk of low birth weight and a 36% higher risk of preterm birth compared to those in cleaner areas.

Louisiana and Mississippi already exhibit the highest rates of these birth complications in the U.S. The study suggests industrial pollution could contribute to this trend. Lead author Kimberly Terrell, a Tulane Environmental Law Clinic research scientist, estimates that approximately one-third of Louisiana’s low birth weight cases and half of its preterm births each year could be attributed to air pollution exposure.

Role of the EPA

In 2022, the EPA announced that four Louisiana organizations would receive $2,399,604 from President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and American Rescue Plan to enhance air quality monitoring in marginalized communities. The recipients include the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), LSU Health Foundation, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice Inc., and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

“I’ve traveled across the country and visited communities that suffered from unhealthy, polluted air for far too long. I pledged to change that by prioritizing underserved communities and ensuring they have the resources to confront longstanding pollution challenges,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “The air monitoring projects we are announcing today, which include the first EPA grants funded by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, will ensure dozens of overburdened communities have the tools they need to understand air quality challenges in their neighborhoods better and will help protect people from the dangers posed by air pollution.”

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has pledged to improve air quality and mitigate emissions.

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