Edwin W. Edwards, 93, Louisiana’s only four-time governor, got a statesman’s funeral July 18 at the Louisiana state capitol in Baton Rouge. The fawning media attention after his death was a far cry from the battering coverage of the fast life that landed Edwards in federal prison, beginning in 2002, for eight years for bribery and extortion involving casino permits. Obituaries and career recaps celebrated a “flamboyant” populist champion of the little man, all but ignoring his staggering legacy of industrial pollution.
Edwards sailed to the governorship in 1972 with major help from Browning Ferris Industries (BFI). The Texas-based petrochemical waste disposal operation expanded into Louisiana under the Edwards administration’s cynical environmental policies, which saw the governor’s cronies and his two brothers profit off waste pit deals.
As Edwards opened Louisiana to massive chemical waste dumping, tons upon tons trucked in by various Texas outfits were discharged into large holes scooped out of hollows across the Cajun prairie. The governor’s executive assistant, Clyde Vidrine, later revealed how he had helped BWS Corporation secure land at Tate Cove in rural Evangeline Parish, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow set his famous poem “Evangeline.” The state health director, who was Vidrine’s brother, signed off on a waste-disposal permit from the administration for BWS.
As heavy 18-wheelers trundled over back roads, locals slowly realized their area was being poisoned and started protesting. In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency named Tate Cove, with 5,000 drums of petrochemical that were leaking toxic chemicals into water sources, a Superfund site. By then, Edwards had finished his second term and popular with voters, a cheery rascal, he ignored the waste pits and went on in future campaigns to remind voters in a state reliant on Big Oil that he supported the jobs and benefits the petrochemical industry brought.
A sharecropper’s son who rose through a law practice to Congress, then to the governorship, Edwards expanded the New Deal coalition to include Blacks, delivering on jobs and contracts. Raising taxes on Big Oil to fund infrastructure and schools, he cast himself as a Huey Long “share the wealth” populist. And that’s the image he set about restoring when his prison term ended in 2011. He threw himself into a surreal last hurrah, campaigning as a political comedian to regain the popularity he had lost. And in some ways, it appears to have worked. The Times-Picayune, which had exposed some of his worst excesses, struck a conciliatory note in an editorial after his death, saying that his many scandals “gradually faded from memory” and he remained “a genuine celebrity in politics still.”
During his 1983 comeback, after sitting out four years by law, Edwards famously said, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy”—the line for which he is most remembered. The incumbent, Dave Treen, was the state’s first GOP governor in modern times. Treen’s TV spots during that campaign made the case that he had founded the Department of Environmental Quality for sorely needed oversight and that he was cleaning up lethal dumps that Edwards had left—hundreds of which, in fact, proliferated under his two terms. In response, Edwards came on like a preacher: “You that are elderly and have seen your funds cut, you that are crippled, poor or disabled, take heart. Take heart, for on October 22 the great healer shall returneth and he shall make you well.”
But Treen’s TV spots had a point: In 1972, that great healer chose a BFI lobbyist, E.C. Hunt, to oversee waste disposal regulations. In March 1977, Southwest Environmental Company (SECO), an operation focused on the lucrative waste disposal business, purchased 382 acres south of Baton Rouge in Livingston Parish for $596,00. Marion Edwards, the governor’s brother, was the corporation secretary; their sibling Nolan Edwards’s law firm handled the deal. That September, a state water inspector reported that barrels laden with cyanide from another state had been discovered at the site, in violation of state laws. The state yawned. In May 1978, SECO sold the land to BFI for $1.13 million, a tidy $534,000 profit in 14 months. Nolan Edwards was the attorney of record; Marion Edwards handled the real estate. In his government capacity, the former BFI lobbyist E.C. Hunt awarded BFI new permits for hazardous waste disposal on that land.
“Between 1977 and 1988 [BFI] reported 146 cases of waste disposal violations in sixteen states,” Oliver A. Houck wrote in 2016 in Loyola Law Review. BFI, in providing disposal services to the petrochemical industries, was essentially using its own playbook, willing to pay fines as a cost of doing business on its own terms, as state regulatory standards took years to catch up to the environmental damage taking place.
In 1983, Wilma Subra, a commercial chemist in New Iberia, La., conducted a study of Vermilion Parish, a heavy dumping area under the Edwards administration. Subra identified 55 waste sites in a 59,000-person county. “Three sites were eventually designated for Superfund status,” said Subra, who later won a MacArthur Fellowship for her work. The area has waterways and roads linked to the Gulf of Mexico for transporting wastewater and “drilling mud” from oil rigs, heavy with toxic compounds. “There were no regulations for permitted sites. A lot of the waste came from Texas,” Subra said. “Some truckers would arrive at night; if the facilities weren’t open, they dumped in rice irrigation canals.”
In time, The Advocate of Baton Rouge, New Orleans’s Times-Picayune and Gambit Weekly, The Houma Courier, and the Times of Acadiana would do extensive investigative reporting on the dumpers’ havens and the cancer clusters and disease rates in polluted areas, but the issue never attracted wide public concern.
In that 1983 gubernatorial race, Louisiana’s huge petrochemical industry helped the great healer raise $14.6 million, more than any gubernatorial candidate, anywhere, to that time. Edwards crushed Treen, taking 62 percent of the vote.
With four adult children and many grandchildren by his first marriage, Edwards was 76 in 2004, when he divorced his second wife, Candy Picou, 40, after entering prison. In 2009, an attractive stranger, Trina Grimes Scott, wrote asking to visit. Trina had read the newly released Edwin Edwards: Louisiana’s Governor, a sympathetic portrait by former TV reporter Leo Honeycutt. Ignored by national outlets, the book sold well in the state; Edwards claimed he was receiving 3,000 letters a week as a result. Trina made frequent visits. In January 2011 he got out of prison. They married that July. She was 32, he was 83. She soon gave birth to a son, now 8.
Edwards signed Honeycutt’s book as he spoke to civic clubs, book events, and political groups, using an entertainer’s wit to stanch the stigma of criminality.
In 1987, Edwards was tried and acquitted of federal charges for the lucrative sale of hospital permits during a four-year period when he was out of office. That same year he ran for reelection, to what would have been his fourth term, but with the state in a severe recession, his sleazy persona hit bad notes. He lost to a reformer, Representative Buddy Roemer. Four years later, in 1991, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, having won a state House of Representatives seat, knocked Roemer out of the gubernatorial primary. Edwards led. In the runoff two traditions of demagoguery collided—Edwards, the warts-and-all populist, and Duke, the white nationalist. Edwards’s landslide finished Duke politically. Edwards basked in the afterglow of his defeat of a Nazi. Barbara Ewell, a now-retired Loyola New Orleans professor of English, approached him at a rally in 1991 when he was running against Duke and said, “Remember the environment.” Edwards smiled and moved on.
Ewell is like many people affected by Louisiana’s reckless yahoo oil culture that Edwards embodied. She grew up on a 1,300-acre farm outside Baton Rouge bordering Devil’s Swamp. Her uncle raised cattle and her father worked the farm handed down from her grandfather. “Every winter they drive cattle down the 30-foot bluff to feed near the swamp,” Ewell recalls.
“In the late 1960s, a wildcat operator from Texas, Petro Processors, dug pits at the edge of the swamp. Disposal companies in Baton Rouge were having trouble getting rid of their waste; about a dozen of them began dumping there. It was a nightmare. Devil’s Swamp caught fire. In 1969 my family filed suit against Petro Processors; then we sued a larger company. Devil’s Swamp became a Superfund site. Edwards had little to do with it,” she said about the governor’s general neglect of environmental concerns when he came into office. “The litigation took 30 years to settle; it was hard on the family. My father died in 2003. The family is selling the last remnants of the land, most of it to polluters.”
“When I think of Edwin Edwards,” she said, “a brilliant politician in many ways, I do think he cared about people, but he had incredible flaws of gambling and egotism that led him into corruption. He was too tight with the oil and gas industry to do much for the environment. In the end, all I can say is, what a waste.”