Calcasieu River

Nine oil refineries and chemical companies in the Lake Charles area have agreed to pay the federal government $5.5 million for their contamination of parts of the northern Calcasieu River estuary.

The settlement was announced this month by the U.S. Justice Department. The latest in a series of federal and state legal actions against more than a dozen industrial plants for polluting the river basin with toxic chemicals and heavy metals, including dioxin and mercury, it covers less than half of the Environmental Protection Agency’s $13 million response costs for contamination caused by this group.

The funds also don’t include money for the Louisiana environmental agency, but state officials say they have been receiving payments from some of the companies and from EPA for at least a portion of the state’s response costs.

According to a complaint filed with the settlement, the chemicals entered the water through accidents and seeped into groundwater from unlined waste disposal impoundments at some plants that began operating as early as 1920.

Lake Charles area residents first met with EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality about water contamination in the early 1980s, after blood samples from some residents indicated unsafe levels of dioxin and other chemicals, according to Wilma Subra, a science advisor to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, which represents area environmental groups.

“We had residents with levels of dioxin in their blood at three times the national average, and those people were fishing in the estuary, in the main Calcasieu River and in all the bayous,” Subra said. “They still are.”

Public comments on the proposed consent decree may be submitted to the Justice Department through May 16.

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