Government & Politics

Landrieu's environmental office on hold during oil spill

With an environmental disaster imminent off the Louisiana coast, the New Orleans government’s web page on “Coastal Restoration”  is blank – as is the seat for the mayor’s director of Office of Environmental Affairs.

While it’s noted on the city’s home page that the site is being redesigned, the page for Coastal Restoration is tabula rasa while other pages under the Office of Environmental Affair’s site –  “Brownfields Program,” “Climate Protection,” “Home Energy Efficiency” – all have content.

As for the empty director’s seat,  a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in an e-mailed statement that it’s up in the air.

“The administration is in the process of evaluating the responsibilities of the Office of Environmental Affairs and its role in the new deputy mayor structure,” spokesman Ryan Berni wrote.

Meanwhile, environmental advocates say the oil spill has produced, in some areas of the region, high levels of hydrogen sulfide, the evidence of which can be smelled throughout New Orleans and the region. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade has an interactive map that cites dozens of complaints from residents about foul, nauseating stenches. Bucket Brigade Director Anne Rolfes said the city can and should be doing something about it.

“The city could be doing some air monitoring of their own,” Rolfes said. “The mayor has a lot of power, but what you usually see is local officials abdicating their power, saying, ‘It’s not my job. It’s EPA’s.’ “

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been involved in monitoring air quality since the spill, but it is relying on fixed monitors placed in just six areas – three in St. Bernard Parish and three in the southern tip of Plaquemines Parish, near Venice.

If the city lacks monitoring systems, or a response in general to the environmental threat, it’s because its Office of Environmental Affairs not only lacks a director, but also a budget. The office, which opened in 1994 and does not fall under the city charter, operates mostly to review policy, but it has no policy-creation or enforcement authority.

Under its former director, Wynecta Fisher, who’s now on leave, the office was involved in matters such as reviewing permits for development  in or near wetlands. But, as Fisher told a group last month, the office “hasn’t had a budget since the storm,” and that the mayor can decide whether to keep or change the office.

Berni said deputy mayor Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed is leading the Office of Emergency Preparedness in developing an “oil encroachment plan” to protect Lake Pontchartrain, in conjunction with adjoining parishes.

The St. Tammany Parish website has a message from Parish President Kevin Davis that says the plan is 95 percent complete.

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