Brandon Moore knew something was off at Louisiana’s Raymond Laborde Correctional Center when he woke up to prison guards slamming windows shut in the middle of the night. By morning, a funny smell permeated the air and black smoke was pouring from a tire recycling facility next door. “It looked like the world was coming to an end,” recalled 35-year-old Sean Watts, who is also incarcerated at Laborde.
Over the past 20 years, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly issued compliance orders and documented environmental violations at the Cottonport Monofill tire processor and landfill, located next to the prison. The company never cleaned up its mess and declared bankruptcy seven years ago. On January 16, towering piles of tires and tire scraps caught fire, and they wouldn’t stop burning for 11 days.
As the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections tells it, favorable winds kept smoke safely away from the prison in the early days of the fire. Those inside, however, say they experienced respiratory problems and headaches for days before being evacuated.
People inside the prison attempted to cover vents with cardboard to keep the smoke out, but it wasn’t enough. Moore, who is 37, said that one of the men in his unit began coughing up blood. Several people interviewed by The Advocate also described smoke entering the facility soon after the fire began, followed quickly by health issues. The prison was already in the midst of a Covid-19 outbreak, with 307 people testing positive.
Finally, four days after the fire began, officials evacuated the prison. However, even as state environmental monitors collected evidence of elevated levels of volatile organic compounds and particulate matter in the air — both of which can cause health problems — the evacuees were not allowed to see medical staff until well after their return to Laborde on January 27, according to three people interviewed.
When they arrived at a previously shuttered part of Allen Correctional Center, “Everyone was trying to see the nurse,” recalled 29-year-old Rondell Delaney. “They said it’s too many people.” Watts said a nurse took the names of people with health impacts, but there was no follow-up.
Upon returning, “I told them I’m having chest pain and a hard time talking,” Delaney recalled. Prison staffers told him the nurses were backlogged and he should sign up for sick call, which costs $3 or $6 for emergencies. He estimated another two weeks passed before he was allowed to see a medical professional. Even then, “All they did was check our temperature and see if we had Covid.” A month after the fire began, Delaney’s voice was still hoarse. Delaney, Moore, and Watts were all still dealing with migraine headaches — something Moore said he’d never experienced before.
Although Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Carr Brown declared the tire fire and subsequent cleanup an emergency on February 8, people incarcerated at the Raymond Laborde Correctional Center say it didn’t translate into robust health checks for the 1,500 people who were locked inside next to the tire fire.
Ken Pastorick, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, denied that medical attention was inadequate. “A handful of prisoners who claimed health issues with the smoke were examined and cleared by the prison’s medical staff,” he said. “Employees effectively and efficiently executed the evacuation and return of prisoners without incident.”
To environmental experts, the burning tires represent a collision of failures by two state agencies that are supposed to protect the health of Louisiana’s most vulnerable people: the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist who has long worked with Louisiana communities coping with the health impacts of industrial disasters and pollution, said incarceration made a bad situation even worse. She surmised, “The evacuation would have happened earlier had it not been a prison.”
Pastorick replied, “Evacuating an entire prison is very rare, not something to take lightly, and must be fully warranted.”
Soon after the tires went up in flames, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality parked its Mobile Air Monitoring Laboratory, a big white van full of environmental sensors, on the northeast corner of the prison, between the fire and Laborde. The state scientists were looking especially for types of particulate matter so small they can lodge in people’s lungs and bloodstream, known as PM10 and PM2.5.
On January 17, the first day that the mobile laboratory delivered results, PM2.5 levels spiked to 97.5 micrograms per cubic meter, a level Kimberly Terrell, staff scientist and director of community engagement at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic in New Orleans said was concerning and likely representative of pollution levels for those downwind. “Very high levels of PM2.5 like this are definitely known to trigger asthma events and cause difficulty breathing. They have acute, immediate impacts,” she said. For the next two days, the lab’s readings were lower.
On the fifth day, “The wind direction shifted and significant quantities of smoke generated by the fire inundated the Correctional Center,” LDEQ’s declaration of emergency says. “The smoke generated by the fire was so significant that visibility was greatly impaired near the vicinity of the Site.”
Guards lined up Laborde’s prisoners outside in the bad air to wait for evacuation, according to two of the incarcerated people interviewed. People who had tested positive for Covid-19 were loaded onto buses alongside everyone else.
“Very high levels of PM2.5 like this are definitely known to trigger asthma events and cause difficulty breathing.”
Yet despite the dire conditions, the state’s lab equipment again recorded relatively low levels of pollution. It wasn’t because the air was clear. “The MAML was likely outside the edge of the smoke plume,” Langley said. Complicating matters further, the day before the evacuation, the Mobile Air Monitoring Laboratory’s power generator broke down, and LDEQ had to bring in a new van, which it placed in the same spot.
Issues like this are typical, Subra said. “Frequently they can’t put the MAML in the best place to monitor,” she said. Plus, “It’s had a history of breaking down.”
It’s also unclear what MAML readings would have triggered a response. Langley told The Intercept that readings above 15 parts per million for an extended period of time would be “concerning,” and a single reading of 100 would be cause for action. “If any receptors were within an area with readings that high, a shelter in place might be ordered,” he said.
Of course, the standard measurement for PM2.5 pollution data — and the measurement that LDEQ used for the MAML data it posted online — is micrograms per cubic meters, not parts per million.
Terrell said this kind of problem, too, is typical of LDEQ. “Yes, there was monitoring, but we are missing very basic information.”
The full spectrum of health impacts is difficult to determine without learning which chemicals were in the smoke. The LDEQ used canisters as well as handheld monitors to determine levels of volatile organic compounds, some of which are linked to cancers. Although LDEQ’s emergency declaration stated that they detected elevated levels of VOCs, Langley said he could not say which compounds his agency detected. He pointed to a laboratory backlog.
Although the state fire marshal has not determined the fire’s cause, Langley said that environmental violations, documented by LDEQ for years, likely made things worse. “If a fire starts at a tire facility, the configuration of the tire stacks and presence of debris can contribute to the severity of the fire,” he said. “The tires were piled as high as 50 feet in areas and the piles were up to 100 yards wide. The area that burned did not have the proper spacing to provide fire breaks.”
Beginning in 2010, LDEQ filed three separate compliance orders against Cottonport Monofill, including a 2013 order describing tires piled too high and too close together, with fire lanes that were too narrow. The problems went unresolved as the years ticked by.
“DEQ is good at going out and inspecting sites, especially when someone complains,” said Subra. “They write up compliance orders, and they never get enforced.”
Cottonport Monofill filed for bankruptcy in 2015, a month after it applied to LDEQ for a new permit to operate. Despite the fact that the company was in bankruptcy court and still had an outstanding compliance order from 2013, LDEQ granted the new permit.
In 2019, the environmental agency issued another compliance order stating that the company failed to properly clean up the site, a process that would have involved shredding all the tires into chips and capping the landfill with clay. Instead, 100,000 tires remained, piled several times higher than the 10 feet allowed. Hydraulic fluid was spilled on the ground. The order demanded the facility’s owners take action within 30 days, stating that penalties of $32,500 per day were on the line. However, the situation was unchanged when inspectors returned that December.
Bankruptcy wasn’t enough for LDEQ to deny Cottonport Monofill’s permit, but it was enough for the agency to decide that no penalty should apply. “Due to the bankruptcy and inoperable status of the Respondent, the Department has not issued penalties to Cottonport Monofill LLC,” said Langley, over email. “Gross Revenues of the Respondent is one of the Factors the Department has to consider.”
It’s unclear who LDEQ expects to pay for the fire damage and the remaining tire debris. Langley said he couldn’t comment on liability. The agency’s inspection reports say First Guaranty Bank possessed the property after the bankruptcy. Yet bank Vice President Evan Singer denied to The Intercept that the bank is the owner or that it has responsibility for cleaning up the tire landfill.
Avoyelles Parish also has a stake in the property. Land records from the parish assessor’s office say the parish bought the property in a 2020 tax sale. However, Joey Frank, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said that the rules around tax sales mean the parish isn’t liable for the cleanup either.
According to the bank, the site is still owned by Ward Enterprises LLC. Listed in the permit as the facility’s owner is Lloyd D. Ward, a former Maytag CEO who was forced to resign as CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2003 amid allegations of ethics violations. Ward did not respond to requests for comment.
LDEQ’s failure to assure Cottonport Monofill resolved its environmental violations before it disappeared tracks with Louisiana’s recent history. Under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, funding for LDEQ was dramatically slashed, leaving the agency with a skeleton staff and weakened environmental enforcement. “DEQ does not issue enforcement actions in a timely manner,” stated a January 2021 report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, focusing on air quality violations.
For now, the state is on the hook for the fire’s expenses. “The declaration of emergency allowed LDEQ to direct state resources to address the fire and control the pollution resulting from the fire,” including 800 barrels of a type of oil produced when tires burn, said Langley.
The tire fire wasn’t the only environmental problem Moore has experienced at the Laborde Correctional Center. According to The Intercept’s Climate and Punishment investigation, the prison is located in a county that has historically seen 110 days annually with a heat index over 90 degrees and 10 days over 105 degrees. By 2100, as the climate crisis deepens, the county will likely see as many as two months annually over 105, a level the National Weather Service considers dangerous.
Moore has witnessed people pass out from the heat. “In the summer you’re dancing with the devil. In the winter, there’s no heat,” he said.
The prison was also the subject of an Environmental Protection Agency Clean Water Act enforcement action in 2017 for wastewater treatment problems, something the federal agency rarely issues against a prison, according to an analysis by Nick Shapiro, director of the Carceral Ecologies lab at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Exacerbating all of it is poor health care. In a recent ruling, a judge described “overwhelming deficiencies” in another Louisiana prison’s medical system, violating the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
“The medical system in the prison altogether is like you’re the bottom of the barrel. You’re going to get treated like crap every time,” Moore said. The tire fire was no exception.