The fire on Friday, three days after a tug boat and pipeline ignited in Louisiana
The fire on Friday, three days after a tug boat and pipeline ignited in Louisiana.
Coast Guard

Air pollution from a huge pipeline and tug boat fire, which raged 30 miles south of New Orleans from Tuesday until it was extinguished on Friday, sickened nearby residents with respiratory ailments and other conditions.

Two days after the fire ignited, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade went door-to-door in LaFitte, La., just east of the bayou where the accident happened, and found that one out of every 10 residents surveyed suffered breathing difficulty, sore eyes, headaches, or other health problems triggered by the acrid pollution plume. About twice that number reported smelling the smoke, and nearly two-thirds said they saw the smoke or fire. “I have bronchial asthma, and I couldn’t breathe very well,” one resident told the nonprofit.

Health problems could have been far worse had northerly winds not blown the smoke away from the tiny Jefferson Parish community.

The Coast Guard said no oil spilled into the water because of the accident, which happened when a tug boat pushing a crude-oil-filled barge crashed into a submerged pipeline owned by Chevron. The liquid petroleum gas from the pipeline triggered a fire on the tug boat that burned for days, but the oil barge was unharmed.

An oily sheen was visible in the water but the Coast Guard dismissed it as ash from the burned gas, which it said did not pose a pollution problem.

Anne Rolfes of the Bucket Brigade disagrees with the Coast Guard’s assessment that the accident did not damage the Gulf environment. She said the release of liquid petroleum gas and burned carbon into the Gulf waters was environmentally damaging, and she criticized government officials for downplaying the dangers that it posed.

“It defies logic to say that when you spill oil and gas and chemicals into an ocean that there is no pollution,” Rolfes told Grist on Sunday. “Of course it’s a problem.”

Last week’s pipeline fire garnered some national media attention because of the spectacular size of the long-burning fire and because of the extraordinary nature of the crash, which risked blowing up or leaking the 2,200 barrels of crude oil aboard the barge.

But Rolfes pointed out that it was no freak event. Federal data show that thousands of smaller fires and accidental releases of fossil fuels into the water blight the Gulf every year. Just last month, an oil service boat crashed into a wellhead in the region, unleashing a geyser of oil that sprayed for two days before the leak was staunched. And, of course, BP is currently defending itself in court  against allegations that its 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf was the result of gross negligence.

Last week’s accident highlighted the absurd fact that the government doesn’t require gas and oil companies to mark the locations of their wellheads and pipelines in the Gulf. Rolfes thinks that imposing such a rule might be a good idea.