After Disaster, Environmental Watchdogs Take To The Skies

Aug 29, 2016

Tallying the fallout of the recent flooding in South Louisiana may take weeks or months. Beyond property damage to homes and businesses, there are also environmental costs—which some watchdog groups are measuring on their own.

 

 


Scott Eustis and Jonathan Henderson left the house before dawn on Tuesday. They’d scheduled a small-plane flight out of Lakefront Airport for 9:30 a.m. But with Air Force One landing in Baton Rouge that morning, they had to push their takeoff time up to 6:30.

The impetus for the flight was to check on high-risk industrial sites, like oil storage tanks and chemical plants, to make sure that they weren’t flooded out and causing problems. Riding in a small, four-seater prop plane, the pair would fly slow and low over more than 20 such sites, recording photos and video to make sure nothing was amiss.

They’re part of a group called the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, started after the BP oil spill.

Scott Eustis photographs an industrial site from above, as part of his work with the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.
Credit Ryan Kailath / WWNO

At his day job, Scott Eustis is a wetland specialist for the non-profit Gulf Restoration Network. He does more than eight flights like this each year. He says that industrial facilities along the petrochemical corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge have stormwater ponds that have likely been overwhelmed in the past week.

 

Industry can’t be relied on to report pollution problems on a normal day, Eustis adds. Say an oil pipeline is under construction when a bad thunderstorm hits—he’s seen bad results

“When the rains come, industry leaves their mess all over the place,” says Eustis. “And because it's all happening at the same time, when everything is absolute chaos, there’s no-one holding them accountable. So of course we don't want to see any pollution, we want them to keep it clean, but we know from reading their permits that they're not prepared.”

The plane is steered by a volunteer pilot with SouthWings. It’s a non-profit that helps environmental watchdogs get up in the air when they need to.

For three hours, the pair inspected pipeline construction sites, industrial waste pits, oil refineries and more. Jonathan Henderson spots slimy water coming up from an old oil field. He posts photos of pollution on his blog, Vanishing Earth.

The plane gets quiet passing over East Baton Rouge, Denham Springs and Walker, as the scope of flood damage came into view.

Pilot Emmett Bartholomew had flown over last week—he knows people in the area.

“This whole area was flooded incredibly bad,” says Bartholomew. “The water has receded a good bit from four or five days ago.”

“How high did it go, the water?” asks Henderson.

“All you saw was water,” Bartholomew replies. “You didn't see ground here.”

The rest of the flight is largely silent.

Scott Eustis says that though he didn’t spot any egregious problems, there are a couple things he’ll follow up on: that suspicious scum on the water spilling out of the old oilfield, and the question of where all this debris will go.

“During Katrina we had a lot of landfills that sprung up overnight in places where shouldn't have been,” Eustis says. “In wetlands where they polluted the water...we'll be watching to make sure that doesn't happen this time.”

Henderson says that even though they didn’t see much, the flyover was necessary. Some of the facilities that flooded have let illegal pollution go unreported in the past.

“We went to these facilities that flooded out and we filed the reports,” he says. “It wasn't until after we filed the reports that they filed the reports, right? So if nobody's watching them, then they can get away with it.”

In the meantime, he’s more concerned with flood recovery efforts. And he hopes the people of South Louisiana will get the attention they deserve.

“It's not New Orleans,” Henderson says. “It’s not this famous city that the whole world seems to love. These places are—we know where they are, but they’re not tourist attractions. And so we just can't let these people just be forgotten.”

Support for WWNO’s Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.