Originally published at the Daily KOSLike many parts of the United States, Colfax, Louisiana, has a long history of deeply rooted institutional racism. One of Colfax’s distinctions in this terrible story is that time and time again, Louisiana and our government have sanctioned attacks, both physical and environmental, on the Black community of Colfax. Colfax has the only commercial facility in the country that is allowed to burn explosives and munitions with virtually no emissions controls—and has been doing so for the military for decades.
On Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality held a public hearing for Colfax residents and environmentalists where residents and others once again called for an end to Clean Harbors’ hazardous waste operating permit in Colfax. Clean Harbors has been allowed to operate
One of the speakers at the public hearing was the outspoken retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who came in with a scathing review of how racist the new permit is.
You can see Honoré’s statement below, filmed by independent video journalist Social Contagion with Remi. In it, the retired military officer points out how Colfax has been lied to about even the smallest of public health concessions over the years. Honoré also points to the state legislature, which has scuttled attempts to close the plan by burying bills over the past few years in subcommittees. And it isn’t a secret. “Everybody know that this plant is a problem.”
He explains that everybody knows because the method is old and terrible and banned everywhere except Colfax. “Louisiana is the only state. This would not happen, as many speakers have said, in Massachusetts. It would not happen. They come to Louisiana because we’re the dumping ground.” He also pointed out that no matter what assurances officials give the Colfax community, they never follow through on even the smallest of details. No health officials come to interview the residents, no tests are done, no warnings given.
The new permit being pushed says that Clear Harbors will construct a closed burn chamber system (CBCS) that would safely dispose of the waste they receive and burn. But, and this is an enormous “but” for the people affected by their burning, Clear Harbors would still be allowed to open burn or detonate (OB/OD) around 10% of its toxic waste. It would also grant Clear Harbors “a two-year grace period to construct” the industry standard CBCS.
Environmental attorney Devin Lowell spoke at the public hearing, saying that such a deal was not simply terrible on its face, it was illegal. “We oppose this permit as written, specifically the allowance of OB/OD to continue essentially as is for up to two years, while the CBCS is constructed. Such an allowance and the loophole that may allow OB/OD so long as the company asks politely first and LDEQ says it’s okay, are unlawful under RCRA, the federal law governing hazardous waste, and violates the public trust duty imposed on LDEQ by the Louisiana constitution.”
There were also doctors and researchers who presented the facts that should be easily understood: Burning toxic crap into the air affects the people breathing that air. Louisiana State University has done work on researching environmental health effects of hazardous waste sites across the country, under the Superfund research program.
Associate Professor at North Carolina State University Jennifer Richmond-Bryant told the hearing panel, “Members of our center evaluated data from the Louisiana Department of Health from 2000-2017. Mortality rates were significantly higher for Colfax than for the rest of Grant Parish and the State of Louisiana for all cardiovascular diseases. Our interviews of residents revealed that residents also experienced respiratory problems, skin damage, cardiovascular problems, thyroid
For decades, citizens of Colfax have been pushing back. But the average resident of Colfax earns around $13,800 a year and Clean Harbors brings in billions of dollars every year. The military employs upwards of 80,000 Louisianans, so you can imagine how that has been playing out. The government has hidden behind the kind of science usually reserved for oil companies pretending climate change is still theoretical, saying that increased cases of lung/bronchus and colorectal cancers in the Colfax area cannot be definitely connected to the burn pits because of other factors such as cigarette smoking.
In 2017, Colfax’s issues with the constant toxic contaminants potentially burning spread about in their community came back into focus once again after a “stockpile of aging explosives blew up at a former Army ammunition plant in Minden, Louisiana, sending a cloud of debris 7,000 feet into the sky.” It was a reminder that the Colfax plant was also being allowed to burn poison and shoot it out into the air and had been doing so for a lot longer, with a lot less fanfare.
Since then, the fight to shine a light on how abjectly corrupt and grotesque this practice is has received more public support. There have been overtures from government officials to punish Clear Harbors for its inability to create a business model that doesn’t poison human beings, but not much has changed. This new permit is unacceptable because the practice is unacceptable on its face.
Walter Einenkel is a staff writer for the Daily Kos. He is based in Oakland, California.