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Scores fall ill near Louisiana gas facility

Residents are calling on the state to help after enduring weeks of near-constant noxious smell in town near New Orleans

Residents of a rural town east of New Orleans say they are being sickened by a nearby gas and petrochemical facility, and are reaching their third week of pleading with state officials to do something about it.

A noxious smell began blanketing the St. Rose area area 12 days ago, residents said. The smell has reportedly caused several dozen people to feel ill with breathing problems, eye irritation, vomiting and diarrhea, according to environmental group Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

Several St. Rose residents traveled on Thursday to the state capital, Baton Rouge, to voice their frustration over an alleged lack of state action on the issue, calling on Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, to do more to protect people in the area.  

Residents and activists say the state has shown a pattern of ignoring the concerns of residents who live near oil and gas facilities.

"The health impacts of this are being brushed under the rug," Anne Rolfes, the head of Bucket Brigade, said in a statement. "We are appealing to health professionals from around the state to come to St. Rose. We need medical missions to come to St. Charles Parish and help.”

The smell is reportedly coming from either the International Matex Tank Terminals (IMTT), a sprawling gas and chemical storage and shipping facility, or a co-located Shell asphalt production plant.

IMTT said continued monitoring shows no elevated levels of toxic substances in the air. Shell said it was working with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to improve a chemical release warning system to let residents know as soon as possible when noxious gases are in the air. But Shell said all emissions in the last two weeks have been “well within permit limits.”

But that has not reassured some residents, who say they have been getting sick for nearly two weeks.

“The smell is unbearable, strong,” resident Sabrina Jordan told TV news station WDSU. “Nobody has been telling us anything. They know there is a smell but don't know the problem.”

A Bucket Brigade survey of 116 residents found that 84 percent reported health problems they blamed on the fumes, including difficulty breathing.

Still, local and state officials say there is little to worry about, although the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has said it will continue to investigate.

"Sulfur compounds are notoriously known to have a low odor threshold," DEQ’s Lee Lemond told WWLTV. "So you can smell them well before most instruments can detect it."

The disparity between what is experienced by residents who live near oil and gas facilities, and what oil and gas companies and state officials say, is a common theme in Louisiana environmental and health politics.

It is hard to know how many accidents there have been at oil and gas storage facilities, but Bucket Brigade estimates there are over 300 accidents at oil refineries across the state each year.

Storage facility accidents are less common, but still regular. The largest industrial tank fire in U.S. history was just down the road from St. Rose in New Sarpy in 2001.

Even without much state intervention, the smell in St. Rose appeared to be dissipating by Thursday afternoon. But residents fear it is only a matter of time before it comes back.

“Whatever they were doing, they’re not doing it anymore,” resident Keith Adams told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "My concern is that once the media leaves, they will go back to the same practice."

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