The Drum (Baton Rouge): Baton Rouge residents say Benzene spill ignored as environmental crime
Baton Rouge residents say Benzene spill ignored as environmental crime
By Lynwood Albert Jr
The Drum reporter
baton rouge -- “It is hard to tell if (the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality) is inept or complacent. We are sure that they have been inaccurate and ineffective,” said Stephanie Anthony, director of the Louisiana Democracy Project which has stirred a public outcry against environmental crimes in North Baton Rouge.
The Project has held “Pray for Our Air” meeting at Allen Chapel AME Church 6175 Scenic Highway, and at least one news conference to discuss the June 14 ExxonMobil chemical spill.
This situation with both the June 14,2012, Baton Rouge ExxonMobil spill and the most recent hurricane Isaac situation and cover up of the Stolthaven spill and the reckless disregard for the health and well being of the people of Braithwaite, Louisiana and the surrounding area is unacceptable. Both situations are indicative of the lack of information, withholding of vital information or the serving up of miss information that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has become known for in fence line communities. We are at the point of not trusting them any more than we trust the chemical plant executives and managers. They seem to be cut from the same cloth with little regard for human beings,” said Anthony.
The meeting included presentations made by nonprofit groups Louisiana Environmental Action Network and Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
Stephanie Anthony, director of the “Pray for Our Air” program brought to everyone’s attention at the beginning of the meeting how on June 14, 2012 ExxonMobil reported that 10 pounds of Benzene was released but claimed the spill was contained which was not true.
The Exxon spill actually released more than 28,000 pounds of Benzene, Anthony said.
The federal Clean Air Act mandates refineries to limit Benzene releases to 10 pounds per accident and this value is upheld by the Louisiana Department of Environment Quality. Benzene is proven to cause cancer in people. Exposure to Benzene can interrupt the bone marrow’s process of creating red blood cells and is proven to cause leukemia and anemia.
Benzene is a chemical that is known to cause cancer in humans. Breathing high levels of benzene and chronic exposure to benzene vapors can cause irritation of the respiratory tract, drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness, said Anthony.
Anna Hrybyk, program manager of the non-profit organization Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Hrybyk asked those in attendance what did they remember about June 14th and most responded by saying they remember smelling a strong odor, having to turn their air conditioning units off, and feeling very exhausted.
Hrybyk mentioned how local residents in the community reported smelling strong odors and encouraged everyone in attendance to report when they smell any disturbing odors in the air because it could be harmful to your health.
According to Hrybyk, all of the residents who have reported smelling strong odors in the neighborhood said that it smelled like burnt oil.
As a result of residents reporting these odors we were able to get inspectors to come out and investigate Exxon, Hrybyk said.
On June 14, 2012 your reports of odors and health effects helped us prove that the Benzene spill was not Below Reportable Quantity like ExxonMobil first claimed. In fact, this single accident was 205 times more than the total amount of Benzene that the ExxonMobil Refinery and Chemical Plant reported releasing in all of 2011, said Hrybyk.
Exxon reported releasing only 139.3 pounds, Hrybyk said.
Below Reportable Quantity refers to the release of a regulated chemical that is less than the level that triggers a government required report.
According to the report ExxonMobil has had the highest number of reported accidents in the state since 2005 (993). Since 2005, their reported number of accidents has increased every year. An alarming trend is that ExxonMobil claims accidents with spills Below Reportable Quantity are increasing too. Out of 304 accidents reported during 2009-2011, ExxonMobil claimed 73% were Below Reportable Quantity.
The only way we can confirm whether or not the chemicals have gotten outside of the plant is if you report it, you are the eyes, ears, and most importantly the noses for environmental crimes because that is what’s happening here these are crimes, said Hrybyk.
Crimes against your neighborhood, against the environment, and against your body, Hrybyk said.
The motto for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade is: “Clean Air, Justice, and Sustainability.”
Brett Spiers of the Office of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Criminal Investigation Division was another key presenter at the “Pray for Our Air” meeting.
Spiers, the Resident Agent in Charge of the Baton Rouge Resident Office of U.S. EPA's Criminal Investigation Division discussed what the EPA is and what they do using a power point presentation titled: Case Study: Pelican Refining U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division.
EPA's criminal enforcement enforces the nation's laws by investigating cases, collecting evidence, conducting forensic analyses and providing legal guidance to assist in the prosecution of criminal conduct that threatens people's health and the environment.
EPA Special Agents investigate the most significant and egregious violators of environmental laws which pose significant threats to human health and the environment, said Spiers.
According to the EPA’s official government website their Criminal Enforcement Program focuses investigative resources on cases that involve negligent, knowing or willful violations of federal environmental law. Knowledge of the specific statutes or regulations that prohibit the wrongful conduct is not required. When a violator is aware that the wrongful conduct is prohibited by law, the violation is said to be "willful."
Frequently, the investigations of environmental crimes will uncover other crimes, such as lying to the government, fraud or conspiracy. These crimes could also be prosecuted. Some examples of the types of criminal investigations include: the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the Clean Air Act.
Spiers encouraged everyone in attendance that if they suspect that an environmental crime has been committed to report it.
He said the EPA will direct the matter to the appropriate investigative authority, Spiers said.
LDP has been concerned with chemical companies emitting more than their permitted amounts of toxins into the air and chemical spills and accidents to which the surrounding community are not alerted.
“We remain extremely concerned about the June 14th ExxonMobil spill which included more than 28,000 pounds of benzene to which the fence line community was affected but not informed of the extent of the accident or the subsequent clean-up which took weeks,” said Anthony.
The Louisiana Democracy Project was established in 1998. The mission is to educate, advance, encourage and increase citizen participation in the democratic process through active involvement in the community. They facilitate activities which will advance and protect the long term interest of the community. Memberships are open to any individual who want to join with others to make a difference.
The “Pray for Our Air” program was established in 2001 to challenge a permit request to increase toxic air emissions by more than an additional 650,000 tons in Baton Rouge.
For more information about the “Pray for Our Air” program and joining you can contact Stephanie Anthony at (225) 907-1459 and for more information about the Louisiana Bucket Brigade or to report any toxic smells in the air you can contact Anna Hrybyk at (504) 484-3433 or (504) 272-7645. The next meeting will be held on October 5.