But much of her work has centered on an 85-mile corridor along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, where chemical plants and refineries pump out millions of pounds of toxic substances each year. Louisiana is ground zero for toxic dumping, she believes, because of lax enforcement in a state dominated by the petrochemical industry. “Because we’re so energy-intense, everything goes here,” Subra says. For example, a 2014 audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor found that the state’s cash-strapped Office of Conservation, which regulates the oil and gas industry, had failed to plug nearly 3,000 orphaned wells and hadn’t fined companies with well-inspection violations. The audit also found that the agency had failed to inspect more than half of Louisiana’s 50,000 oil and gas wells every three years as required by law.
Yet even industry executives consider her a worthy adversary. “She’s always been highly respected, courteous and professional,” says Dan Borné, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, an industry trade group. He describes Subra as one of the environmental movement’s “top guns.”
Subra has earned many accolades: a MacArthur “genius grant” and the Global Exchange Human Rights Award, among numerous others. She’s testified before Congress, lectured at Harvard, helped draft environmental laws and served on numerous governmental panels. “She is respected among scientists and companies across the board, which is a reflection of the methodical and thoughtful work that she does,” says David Gray, director of the office of external affairs for the EPA’s Region 6, based in Dallas. “Even when we disagree, she brings a healthy dialogue to the table about pretty complex issues.”
The Louisiana native didn’t start out as an environmental crusader. The daughter of an inventor, she learned technical skills — like doing chemical analysis — from the time she was in middle school, pitching in during the summer at her father’s company, which ground up oyster shells for use in paints, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
The valedictorian of her high school class, Subra got her master’s degree in microbiology, chemistry and computer sciences from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. In 1967, she started work at the Gulf South Research Institute, a state-funded agency that did toxicology studies. Although the institute conducted mostly animal studies, dosing lab rats and mice with different agents that potentially cause cancer, researchers also tested blood and urine from people who were exposed to chemicals in the area. During her 14 years there, Subra grew frustrated that she couldn’t share her findings with residents because of the company’s confidentiality agreement. Test results were turned over to federal agencies like the EPA or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which strictly regulated their distribution.
The turning point came in 1980, when her lab tested workers at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Lexington, Ky., where crates of ammo from Vietnam had been stored to be decommissioned. The employees, who were civilians from poor parts of Appalachia, took the wood crating home and used it to panel walls, build bookcases or burn in the fireplace.
"They'd be very sick, but they needed the job, so they'd go out the next morning. I was educating people all along the coast...talking about the chemicals they were being exposed to and how they needed protective gear."
“The wood had been soaked in so much pentachlorophenol that it was dripping out of the train cars,” says Subra, who adds that the EPA recently categorized the pesticide as a likely carcinogen. “We found it in the blood and urine of the workers, and it had also contaminated the air and the soil when they took it home. But we were never able to go back to the community and tell them what we had found. And these people had a right to know.”
In 1981, she founded the Subra Company, a consulting firm that conducts chemical analyses for food companies and provides free technical assistance to community groups. She spends most of her time giving advice to residents dealing with oil, chemical and hazardous waste spills and pollution, using her expertise to expose malfeasance by entrenched corporate interests without a second thought to her own personal safety. She’s been threatened, harassed, had her office burglarized and computers stolen — forcing her to move her office from a trailer near the four-lane blacktop highway that cuts through south Louisiana to a cozy file-filled cottage on her property across from sugar cane fields. She’s even been shot at — authorities never learned who fired the gun while Subra was working at a desk by her front window — but she takes it all in with remarkable equanimity.