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Environmental woes: clearing muddy waters

Politics is as much a part of the atmosphere here in Louisiana as the humidity. And politics seems to color just about every discussion that takes place, except maybe chats about the weather.

The heightened concern about environmental issues over the past couple of years is a case in point. Articles on hazardous waste, water pollution, and other issues appear almost daily in local papers. Depending on one's point of view, all this is either wholesome public dialogue or hysteria.

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Lousiana's chemical, energy, and other industries - combined with the high water table and deltaic geology - make for some tricky environmental problems. The fact that the Mississippi drains 1.2 million square miles of the United States, pollutants and all, doesn't help any, either.

Both state officials and environmentalists agree that these problems have been handled badly in the past. Where they differ is on how effectively remedial action is being taken and how swiftly the changes are coming.

Ross Vincent, president of Ecology Action of Louisiana, says that though the state's environmentalists may have no great love for the chemical industry, they see the real problem as state regulatory laxity. ''If the state would do its job , the industries would do their job,'' he says. ''The basic problem is that state government sees itself as a service arm to industry, rather than an enforcement agency.''

''It takes more than overnight to clean up 30 years of problems,'' counters Winston Day, deputy secretary in the Department of Natural Resources. ''It's discouraging. We all want immediate solutions. Our biggest frustration is not having the resources to solve the problems.''

He says the state has basically strong environmental standards - standards which responsible industries willingly meet. ''And as for polluters, we don't want them anyway.''

The state has an advantage in that most of its industrial base is so new, he says; the petrochemical industry is basically a postwar flowering, and the continual modernization of the plants means opportunities to build in new environmental safeguards.

Mr. Day does see some gaps in state law and especially in state regulations, gaps that he says are being addressed. A recent proposal by a Dutch firm to open a salt-dome waste facility near Lake Charles pointed to one gap, he says.

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It became apparent that the firm was intending to treat waste brought in from other countries - something the state didn't want but couldn't, under existing statutes, forbid. A bill to address the issue is being introduced into the current legislative session, Mr. Day says.

The petrochemical industries probably get more than their fair share of the blame, Mr. Vincent says. Some observers say the more image-conscious firms are ahead of municipalities on environmental matters. In fact, Mr. Vincent says some of the more progressive companies have quietly asked him to push for legislation to require measures they would like to take on their own but can't justify economically without a legal requirement.

Mr. Vincent says he is beginning to hear ''rumblings'' across the country that Louisiana's reputation on environmental matters is making the state less attractive as an industrial location.

He charges that the regulatory system here is seen as ''so fouled up'' and so susceptible to change that it is creating ''the kind of uncertainty that corporate boards don't tolerate well.'' Uncertainty, it is generally agreed, is worse than stringency.

Messrs. Day and Vincent agree that one new development is a hopeful sign: Gov. David C. Treen's push to establish a new cabinet-level department of the environment during the current legislative session.

Cabinet status would mean that more state environmental officials would be political appointees rather than career civil servants. This, in turn, might mean more political responsiveness among those trying to engineer solutions to delicate issues. That is seen as a potential plus.

''We'd have people who could work with other people, and that would improve our image, which is poor,'' Mr. Day says.

Governor Treen, a Republican, is up for reelection in November, and his push for a department of the environment is seen as an attempt to beat Edwin Edwards, his Democratic predecessor and would-be successor, to the punch. Mr. Edwards is running as a born-again environmentalist.

Fred Loy, executive vice-president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, has been polling his member firms on this proposal. He has found no outright opposition and some support, ranging from lukewarm to moderately enthusiastic.

Mr. Vincent, the Ecology Action president, cites two major issues on which he says the state has been on the ''wrong'' side.

One involves Browning Ferris International, the waste-disposal firm, which bought a dump site at Willow Springs, near Lake Charles. A citizens' research group has found the site to be leaking hazardous wastes because of the previous owner's negligence.

As possible remedial measures are studied, the Environmental Control Commission is expected to consider a closure plan for the site, allowing BFI to wind down landfill operations over a year or two, although the firm has also applied for permits for an injection well.

Mr. Vincent charges that this closure plan is a ''jackleg attempt'' by state regulatory officials to get a permit for BFI to continue landfill operations. Mr. Day denies this. BFI has indicated that it expects to cease landfill operations soon, he says.

Another case still percolating along is that of the IT Corporation, a California waste firm that the state ethics commission found to be in violation of two provisions of the state code. The firm prepared in 1979 a $350,000 feasibility study on siting a waste facility.

The area which IT's study recommended as an ideal site was found to include a tract IT was negotiating to buy, according to ethics commission attorney Peter Wright.

Moreover, IT was found to have retained a consultant also on retainer by the state Department of Natural Resources - working on contracts connected with the waste facility that his other boss, IT, was bidding for.

The soup gets thicker: The consultant was alleged to have had on his payroll a state employee also working, on the state end, on the IT project.

(At the time, Mr. Wright says, the state's environmental program was quite new and involved a lot of federal money, consultants, and subcontractors.)

IT has been fined and ordered to return the money it received for the study. IT's Baton Rouge attorney Charles McCowen declined comment on the case, since IT is appealing.

The case against the consultant is still to be heard; the case against the state employee has been heard, but is still to be decided.

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