New mapping tool gives county-by-county breakdown of air pollution


Plumes of smoke rise from three towers at Westlake Chemical's plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Halle Parker, WWNO

By Halle Parker/WWNO

It’s not easy to picture what’s in the air we breathe in Louisiana and Mississippi. But earlier this month, a researcher debuted a new tool that could help. It maps pollution in the region, and some environmental groups are already using it. 

Since Louisiana became the first state in the Deep South to develop a plan for tackling climate change, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium professor Alex Kolker said he’s gotten more questions from people about the quality of the air and where pollution comes from.

“There has been longstanding concern about air pollution and its impact on communities, and I think we’ve seen a renewed interest in that in the last couple of years,” he said. 

As one of the scientists advising the state’s first Climate Task Force, Kolker said he wanted to help bridge some of the existing information gaps and make the data more accessible. So, he started mapping air emissions across Louisiana and Mississippi.

He used a giant database managed by the science arm of the European Union. The Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, or EDGAR, estimates the amount of emissions produced across the planet to within 6.5 square miles .

“When I saw this dataset, I realized that it could be useful for us here in Louisiana.  I had never seen anything at this level of detail before,” Kolker said.

His team did those calculations at the parish, or county-level for three types of greenhouse gases and 10 air pollutants annually. 

“You could almost imagine that we put a cookie cutter, the size of each parish on that global data set,” he said.

Look at the emissions of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, and the interactive map clearly illustrates the hotspots for emissions across the two states: southwest Louisiana and central Mississippi. Another click and the map shows how methane emissions have changed in that area over time, dating back to 1970. 

A user can also toggle between layers that give a snapshot of an area’s demographics or where major greenhouse gas emitting facilities are located. 

The emissions data isn’t exact because it’s based on estimates and calculations rather than real-time air monitoring. For greenhouse gas emissions, it’s accurate within 7% to 16% of what’s calculated. It isn’t clear what the margin of error is for other air pollutants. 

Despite the limitations, environmental groups have begun planning ways to use the tool. 

In Baton Rouge, the Ocean Conservancy’s Nayyir Ransome works with communities on issues surrounding Louisiana’s ports.

Ransome said they’ve gone through training with the new tool and was impressed with the user-friendly design. 

“You don’t want to go in certain communities with this high-level scientific jargon. You really want to meet people where they are, so that they can make well-informed decisions,” Ransome said. “It definitely gives a clear visual, and it’s also something that communities can use and play around with and like really kind of get a sense of the impacts in their own like backyards.”

Kendall Dix is the national policy director for Taproot Earth, another environmental advocacy group that works on the Gulf Coast, and he agreed with the power of the map as a teaching tool not only for community members but decision-makers who don’t understand what it’s like to live with chronic air pollution. 

“Poor communities, black communities, indigenous communities often aren’t believed when they’re describing their reality. You’ve seen some of that in the way that institutions have denied that ‘Cancer Alley’ even exists,” Dix said.

The term “Cancer Alley” refers to a heavily industrialized, 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River running from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that holds more than 100 petrochemical plants. A ProPublica analysis found that the region is one of the country’s largest hotspots for toxic air. Kolker has research that hasn’t been published yet – it’s still undergoing journal review – that found that the region also produces a disproportionate amount of Louisiana’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Advocates say data presented by scientists can help support communities in the area as they advocate for themselves in the face of political headwinds. 

“Once they’re believed, that’s oftentimes when resources can start flowing in,” Dix said. 


Supreme Court to decide whether Alabama can postpone drawing new congressional districts

The outcome could determine what map the state uses in the 2024 elections and whether the high court will revisit arguments over the role of race in redistricting.

Q&A: Author of ‘Rocket Men’ details how Black quarterbacks helped move the NFL forward

John Eisenberg talks with the Gulf States Newsroom about the Black quarterbacks who helped change the NFL, as well as the players who never got the chance.

Q&A: Why New Orleans’ unhoused people face increased danger from relentless heat

Delaney Nolan discusses her report for The Guardian that revealed a spike in heat-related illness calls among New Orleans’ unhoused people this summer.

How a rural Alabama school system outdid the country with gains in math

Piedmont City schools notched significant improvement in math, landing in the top spot among school districts across the country in a comparison of scores from before and during the pandemic. Nationwide, students on average fell half a year behind in math, researchers say.

Video shows high school band director shocked with stun gun, arrested after refusing to stop music

State Rep. Juandalynn Givan, who is representing band director Johnny Mims as his attorney, said Tuesday that the incident is an “alarming abuse of power” that instead “should have been should have been deescalated.”

Protecting Margaritaville: Jimmy Buffett, Bama and the Fight to Save the Manatee

The singer, who died Sept. 1, grew up in Mobile and had a huge following in Alabama, even if many of his devotees in the state were less than thrilled by his liberal politics.

More Environment Coverage