The Effects of COVID-19 on Pollution in New Orleans

By Kylee Whatley

Over the past eight months, a global pandemic has forced New Orleanians to change their behavior in everyday life. At the start of the pandemic, citizens experienced several months of quarantines. Furthermore, even after the Mayor lifted quarantines in the summer, many of the city’s stores, restaurants, and bars remained closed or had reduced occupancies. Additionally, many social activities, such as a church, school, and physical fitness, were moved online to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, the change in human behavior due to the coronavirus impacted not just the people living and working in New Orleans but also the region’s environment.

The areas around New Orleans are known for having high pollution levels due to the large number of oil and gas processing facilities located on the Mississippi River. The city also has a low population density, meaning that most people drive to work each day. According to Tulane Professor Elizabeth Davey, “a [significant] source of pollution is the trucks and cars, surface-level pollution, [and New Orleans] does have industries…refineries and chemical companies [that] form a slightly larger part of our air pollution.” However, during quarantine New Orleans experienced unprecedented drops in air pollution. According to Nola.com, “Emissions from fuel-burning sources, including cars and airplanes…declined in the New Orleans-Baton Rouge area by about 40 percent during the first two weeks after…March 22, … with April as the month when [the area] saw its greatest reduction in driving.” There was a significant decrease in Kenner, “where an air monitoring station registered a 50 percent reduction in smog during April.” Another area where there were reductions are airports; there was a 97 percent drop in “Passenger traffic at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport,” according to Nola.com.

Even though experts recognize a significant decrease in air pollution, Professor Davey maintains that the air pollution in New Orleans is mostly affected by “a mix of pollution caused by people and weather, how warm it is, and whether the air is mixing or stagnant.” While air pollution may have decreased across the region, New Orleans generated more solid waste during the pandemic due to people’s changing consumption patterns. Davey says there is “more waste now, solid waste, material pollution of our consumption.” Professor Davey believes “we are going to see much more medical waste” necessary for controlling the pandemic. The solid waste generated from the pandemic will harm our environment from testing kits, gloves, and masks to the disposable containers used for carry-out and delivery. Some are hopeful that local elected officials will take the necessary steps to decrease plastic pollution by using more sustainable packaging methods such as paper and glass. 

After witnessing such a large drop in air pollution during COVID-19, New Orleans has proof that reductions in air pollution are possible, even in a city like this with low population density and a public transportation system that lacks in comparison to comparably sized cities. Some are hopeful that the city will begin to implement and enforce stricter environmental protection laws, such as reducing paper and plastic pollution, regulating the industrial facilities, and expanding bike lanes to make commuting easier. Professor Davey recommends “driving less cars and shifting vehicles from gasoline to more efficient alternative fuels,” although these steps are more challenging to accomplish at the local level.

Furthermore, New Orleans is an incredibly poor city, so electric cars are too expensive for most New Orleanians. Professor Davey believes that 2020 is an exciting time to be in New Orleans. There are many ongoing initiatives, such as expanding bike lanes, that figure to reduce emissions in the coming years. She recommends little things that conscientious citizens can do, such as choosing to walk to that park that’s only 10 minutes from your house or to bike to a destination that may be too far to walk but still close enough not to drive. A more considerable step that citizens can take is to use solar power for their houses, although most solar panels are still prohibitively expensive for the average person. Nevertheless, Professor Davey is confident that “What will make the biggest difference in the long term for all of us is what we learn from COVID-19 and how we build a future based on our experience during this pandemic.”

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