Environmentalists have always had a tough slog in Louisiana, where the oil and gas industry provides tens of thousands of jobs and chemical plants dot the landscape along the Mississippi River.
But the cause has picked up a high-profile sponsor in the last few years, retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the military leader who won acclaim for restoring calm and order to New Orleans in the chaos after Hurricane Katrina nearly 10 years ago.
Honore, who hails from rural Pointe Coupee Parish and retired from the Army in 2008, has tried to use his post-hurricane fame to drum up attention for concerns about clean air and water in a state where most leaders push for loosened industry regulations, not tightened ones.
“If we don’t do something about pollution, it will change our culture,” Honore told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, citing the state’s seafood industry and its reputation as the “Sportsman’s Paradise.”
In the last few years, Honore’s become an outspoken voice for Louisiana’s environmentalists, leading what he calls the “Green Army,” a group of environmental organizations that often get little attention at the Louisiana Capitol.
Whether Honore can translate his prominence into regulatory change remains questionable, however.
He first got involved in the work when a massive sinkhole opened in a swampy area of Assumption Parish. The area around Bayou Corne dissolved into liquefied muck in August 2010 at the site of a salt dome where a company was extracting brine used in the petrochemical refining process. The sinkhole since has grown to nearly 40 acres, forcing most of the 350 residents in the tiny community to pack up and leave their homes.
Honore became a voice for the complaints of people who lived in Bayou Corne, and he’s widened his mission since then, taking on environmental causes across Louisiana. He jokes that after 37 years in the Army and leading national disaster response efforts he’s now tagged with monikers like “rogue environmentalist” and “extremist.”
But his distinguished military service has drawn more attention to the causes he champions – and more deference from state lawmakers and officials who don’t necessarily agree with Honore’s policy positions but respect his background.
His agenda is not well-defined. He said he wants to make sure that companies doing business in Louisiana follow the federal clean air and water standards in existing law, and he’s pushing for toughened state laws and regulations for industry.
Honore said the state needs to improve monitoring and notification systems at chemical plants, getting automated detection equipment out into the field to track breaches of air and water pollution standards. He calls the current oversight “1950s technology.” He wants more attention to water management in Louisiana and to cleanup of abandoned oil wells.
But he also is targeting one of Louisiana’s most important industries, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars each year in tax revenue to the state, pays the salaries of tens of thousands of workers and pours millions into campaign donations for state officials.
Honore, who hasn’t ruled out a possible run for office, insists he’s not trying to chase away industry. “No one begrudges the oil and gas industry. We want them to make money. But they’ve got to fix what they break and they’ve got to clean up after themselves,” he said.
He may have a high-profile pedigree, but Honore has run into the same lack of interest of adding new regulations to industry in Louisiana.
Among the Green Army’s most notable recent defeats, it unsuccessfully fought legislation seeking to void a lawsuit that a south Louisiana flood protection board filed against the oil and gas for coastal damage.
Honore was on the losing side against Gov. Bobby Jindal, most state lawmakers and the oil and gas industry, who said the lawsuit was improperly filed, an attack on business and a windfall for trial lawyers. The legislation now is being challenged in court.
Honore acknowledges the trouble he’s had gaining traction with state policymakers in the Legislature: “They treat us with respect. They just don’t listen to us.”