BY CHARLES LUSSIER, Advocate staff writer
Over the past few months, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has collected 1,363 letters from state residents urging ExxonMobil to reduce the number of accidents at its large oil refinery in Baton Rouge.
The Bucket Brigade claims it has spent two years trying unsuccessfully to meet with Baton Rouge Refinery Manager Steven Blume.
The letters, which brigade members began collecting in August, urge Blume to “upgrade equipment, hire more workers, improve emergency alerts and implement proper shut downs of the refinery in advance of storms,” according a news release.
The letters apparently weren’t delivered as planned.
“We still have the letters,” Anne Rolfes, director of the brigade, acknowledged in an email.
.The New Orleans-based environmental group had originally sought to deliver those letters directly to Blume.
Lana Venable, a spokeswoman for ExxonMobil, said Blume is out of town this week, and, in any case, the plant has high security, and that letters and packages need to come through the U.S. mail.
“This continues a trend of their refusal to sit down and talk about their accident problem,” Rolfes said.
Instead, the Bucket Brigade held a press conference outside the downtown Baton Rouge offices of Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, the industry trade group to which ExxonMobil belongs.
Chris John, president of the trade group, sent out a news release denouncing the move calling it a “political stunt designed to attract headlines.”
Rolfes said ExxonMobil should strive to have zero accidents.
“ExxonMobil’s profit last year was $30 billion, and they can afford to do better,” Rolfes said. “Hiring more workers — not contractors — would be a good start.”
In its news release, the brigade calls explicitly for full-time “union” workers at the refinery.
The Bucket Brigade initiative is also endorsed by a Baton Rouge community group, Community Empowerment for Change, and the United Steelworkers, a national trade union that has a local at the refinery.
“We’re concerned with refinery safety,” said Lynne Baker Hancock, a union spokeswoman, describing it as the dominant union in the “refinery sector.”
She said that plant workers with union representation are more likely to report health and safety problems and refuse to work in unsafe conditions than contract workers.
Hancock acknowledged that the union in January will start renegotiations on its contract with ExxonMobil, including its Baton Rouge refinery. She said, though, that the union was not involved in the letter drive and that the contract renegotiations are not connected to the drive.
Between 2005 and 2010, the Bucket Brigade found that ExxonMobil reported an average of two accidents a week.
For the past three years, the Bucket Brigade has published an annual survey of refinery accidents.
In 2010, ExxonMobil was involved in 103 of the 354 incidents catalogued in the survey.
The refiner, however, maintains that most of these incidents were minor. The company reported them, as courtesy calls, to state regulators because often it didn’t know initially how bad they were.
Only 32 of the incidents involved emissions that later proved big enough to require that they had to be reported to state and to federal regulators,
“We’d rather report too many times than misreport,” said Robert Berg, who works on environmental issues for ExxonMobil in Louisiana.
Berg said the short term contract workers at ExxonMobil mostly fall into two categories: They work in ancillary functions where it makes no sense to hire full-time people, or are veteran specialists in their areas of expertise.
And any time someone works in the plant, they go through the same safety courses, Berg said.
Berg said he’s puzzled by the Bucket Brigade letter drive, saying that refinery manager Blume showed representatives of the environmental group around the plant earlier this fall, allowing them to ask whatever questions they wanted about plant operations.
“We really rolled out the red carpet for them,” Berg said.
The tour was a nice gesture, Rolfes said, but the Bucket Brigade did not talk to Blume or address the group’s issues with the company.