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Refinery accident reports expose poor maintenance, inadequate storm preparation and excessive flaring

December 13th, 2010

Reducing accidents an opportunity for job creation, economic growth

NEW ORLEANS, La. – A study released today finds patterns between the frequent accidents at Louisiana refineries and the warning signs ignored by BP that led to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Addressing these warning signs now can make refineries safer, protect public health and create jobs and economic growth in Louisiana.

“Many refinery accidents are preventable,” said United Steelworkers International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s oil sector. “It takes adequate maintenance, heeding the warning signs, and investigating whether the ‘lessons learned’ from previous accidents within the industry apply to a refiner’s facility.”

Common Ground II: Why Cooperation to Reduce Accidents at Louisiana Refineries is Needed Now – released today by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, refinery neighbors, United Steelworkers and the Environmental Working Group – examines 2,607 accident reports refineries submitted to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality from 2005-2009. During this five-year period, the reports show the state’s 17 refineries averaged 10 accidents per week. These accidents are especially dangerous for workers and those who live nearby.

“I've lived in this community for 30 years, and I love it. But because of the hardships we’ve experienced every day living near Calumet Lubricants, you never know what to expect. Will it be a clear day or a day of repeated emissions and accidents?” said Velma White, Shreveport resident and member of Residents for Air Neutralization. “In this community, we are exposed to deadly chemicals on a daily basis.”

Storm preparedness is a continued problem for refineries, despite the fact that rain and tropical storms are part of life in Louisiana. Twenty-seven percent of all accident emissions to the air and 64 percent of emissions to the ground and water occurred during bad weather.

Refineries often claim these accidents are “acts of God,” ignoring the preventable measures and hurricane preparedness protocols that could save money and prevent damage. In 2008, ExxonMobil Baton Rouge failed to shutdown before Hurricane Gustav. As a result, more than 500,000 pounds of pollutants were released via flares that burned for 12 days, putting workers and the community in harm’s way.

Maintenance issues account for a significant portion of refinery accidents and emissions as well. For six years, ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Refining ignored nine Occupational Health and Safety Administration recommendations on piping. In October, a contract worker died while trying to repair a leaking pipe.  

The refinery’s data shows 38 percent of accident emissions are sent to the flare. The EPA stated in 2000 that “frequent, routine flaring may cause excessive, uncontrolled sulfur dioxide releases,” burdening our public health system. Sulfur dioxide is the most released chemical during accidents at Louisiana refineries, totaling more than 8 million pounds from 2005-2009.

“Flaring and malfunctions at refineries is said to cause respiratory aliments, burning throats, watery eyes, migraines and nausea. Residents report the flaring is most frequent after midnight and believe there is an alternative to this practice,” said Suzanne Kneale, a St. Bernard Parish resident and member of Concerned Citizens Around Murphy.

By utilizing flare gas recovery systems and improving storm preparedness and preventative maintenance programs, refineries can save money in the long run and reduce the burden on public health from pollution. The study recommends hiring more trained workers to implement these recommendations.

“As one of the biggest polluters and profitable sectors in the economy, the oil industry can and must invest resources to significantly reduce these often deadly accidents,” said EWG president and co-founder Ken Cook. “The number of accidents that occur in a given week, let alone an entire year, is not only astonishing but unacceptable, particularly for refinery workers, their families and those who call these communities home.”

LABB is sending copies of this study (based on their own reports) to refineries across the state, calling on refinery managers to use the opportunity to work with community groups in fixing the problem.

“We are asking the refineries to sit down and collaborate with us,” said Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “Solving the refinery accident problem in Louisiana presents an opportunity for job growth and economic development. This is good for everyone, including the refineries.”

The full report can be read at labucketbrigade.org. For more on refinery accidents, check out LABB’s Refinery Efficiency Initiative’s Refinery Accident Database.

About today’s events:
LABB is hosting press conferences at 10:30 a.m. today in three locations:
- Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s offices, 4226 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA 70119.
- Community Empowerment for Change at the home of Seabell Thomas, 3776 Baton Rouge Avenue, Baton Rouge, LA 70805. Contact Anna Hrybyk, 504-312-1737, Sonyja Thomas, 225-268-2398.
- Residents for Air Neutralization at New Bethel Missionary Baptist, 3300 Greenwood Road, Shreveport, LA 71109. Contact Velma White, 318-286-4325.

Teleconference:
An optional teleconference for national and out-of-state media is set for noon (CST) Monday featuring LABB and United Steelworkers. Dial-in number is 1-712-432-3030. Conference code: 812887

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is an environmental health and justice organization supporting neighborhoods’ use of grassroots action to create informed, sustainable communities free from industrial pollution.

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