Gambit: Bayou Polluters

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December 13th, 2010


On Oct. 29, 2007, ConocoPhillips' Lake Charles refinery issued a follow-up report to an Oct. 22 accident there: A vacuum truck was removing acid from a containment area, an a chemical reaction with materials inside the truck caused a release of hydrogen sulfide. Nine employees were medically evaluated. One died.

That 83-pound release of hydrogen sulfide is less than the 100-pound "reportable quantity" threshold — the minimum required before filing an incident report with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The refinery submitted the report as a "courtesy call only," officials wrote in the document.

In its latest report (out Monday, Dec. 13) the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), an environmental health organization, says refinery accidents, like the one at ConocoPhillips, are underreported and underestimated. The report compiled 2,607 accidents the state's 17 refineries reported to the DEQ between 2005 and 2009. The data used in the report comes from the refineries themselves — LABB gathered "upset reports," the mandatory reports for chemical releases at or above the reportable quantity, made available to the public under the federal Emergency Planning and the Community Right to Know Act. LABB also included all accident reports, including those — like the incident at ConocoPhillips — which fall below the mandatory reporting quantity.

The LABB report also shows Louisiana's refineries are poorly maintained and underprepared for severe (and not-so-severe) weather.

"We're doing this because no one is looking at this information in a comprehensive way," LABB research associate Mariko Toyoji says. "All this information goes online in a database. ... We're trying to get it out there."

LABB founding director Anne Rolfes says there was an average of 10 refinery accidents a week, based on data from the last five years. "Not only do we have to rely on (the refineries') good faith to tell us what's happening, they use some factors that we're starting to find aren't accurate," she says.

Those factors include "fuzzy math" emissions estimates. Refineries typically rely on engineering judgment or models to determine how emissions are released to the flare (the incinerator that burns off chemicals that would otherwise be released into the air). "They're presuming that it's going to incinerate 98 or 99 percent of the bad stuff, and in fact, industry studies show that's not accurate," Rolfes says.

Those industry studies (from the Marathon refinery in Garyville, a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, and performance tests from Industry Professionals for Clean Air in Houston) determined the incineration rate is closer to 50 percent, and flare emissions are likely six times greater than what is reported. The only way a flare works, the report says, is under perfect weather conditions — a rare circumstance in Louisiana.

According to the report, bad weather accounts for 27 percent of air emissions and 64 percent of ground or water emissions. (The majority of the latter are from Hurricane Gustav's winds, which created an 11 million gallon spill at Chalmette Refining.) But it's not always a hurricane; heavy rainfall contributed to a 2.2 million gallon spill at Citgo Lake Charles in 2006. Hurricanes accounted for 55 percent of weather-related emissions to the air and 84 percent to the ground and water. Most refineries deem them unpreventable as "an act of God," Rolfes says.

When faced with a hurricane, Rolfes says, "refineries have to make this decision to shut down or not, and you can kind of see what (the refineries') issue is — it's like evacuating: You don't want to evacuate unless you have to." With Gustav looming in 2008, ExxonMobil Refining and Supply in Baton Rouge delayed shutting down, and winds knocked down a cooling tower while the plant was still running — causing a release that contributed more than 600,000 pounds of pollution with several days of flaring.

"Prevention is cheaper than dealing with these impacts," Rolfes says, adding that the lack of storm protection is "part of the larger dynamic of being ill-prepared for accidents — a lot of these things would require some short-term investment."

But in filing accident reports, more than 20 percent of refineries don't provide any information as to the accident's cause. "That really tells us a lot about the reporting methods and reliability of this information," Toyoji says.

Refineries don't have a standardized form for sending accident reports, and each has its own report template.

The biggest culprit when it comes to omitting the cause of accidents also happens to be the state's biggest polluter: ExxonMobil. Since 2005, its Baton Rouge plant emitted more than 4 million pounds of pollution and spilled more than 35,000 gallons of liquid contaminants. Its subsidiary Chalmette Refining emitted more than 6 million pounds and spilled more than 11 million gallons.

Other common accident causes include equipment failure, faulty piping and tubing, and corrosion. LABB says the facilities are just too old to perform well.

The Marathon facility, completed in 1976, is one of the last refineries built in the country. Most others were built in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s. ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge facility was built on a cotton plantation in 1909, originally for Standard Oil.

"They're showing their age, and they simply don't have the infrastructure to keep up," Toyoji says. "To do an infrastructure overhaul is viewed as being too costly."

When a refinery believes it has emitted more than a reportable quantity, employees call a hotline that alerts state police, who then relay the message to several state agencies — including the DEQ, which handles the report paperwork.

If the accident's emissions don't exceed the reportable quantity, refineries "tend to call us anyway," says Peter Ricca, manager of the DEQ's Chemical Emergency Response, Chemical Accident Prevention & Radiological Emergency Planning & Response. The refinery has 24 hours to call in an incident. If emissions exceed a reportable quantity, they have to follow up the call with a written report within seven days of the incident. All reports are entered in a database and handled like case files, with numbers assigned to each refinery and all reports for each incident filed together.

Rolfes says LABB's correspondence with the DEQ has been limited. Ricca says the DEQ didn't anticipate the requests for incident reports from groups like LABB. Ricca says the agency's department is understaffed, with only two data-entry staffers filing reports. "It's a manpower thing, but it just takes time," he says.

The DEQ responds to emergencies with air monitoring and chemical accident prevention programs. Refineries emit 80 different chemicals, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, benzene and other hazardous emissions. (LABB notes that some refineries' emissions dipped in 2008-2009, likely due to stricter emissions regulations the Environmental Protection Agency proposed in June 2010. On Dec. 9, the EPA delayed action on the proposals until July 2011 to give the agency more time to study what effects the new rules would have on the industry.)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), meanwhile, inspects the working environment. The agency found nine faulty piping violations at Chalmette Refining in 2009; in October 2010, faulty pipes were involved in the death of an employee at that refinery.

"OSHA reports aren't public (to DEQ) until after the fact," Ricca says, adding that the agencies aren't able to compare notes for facilities until after the incident reports have been filed, which leaves little oversight for dysfunctional facilities.

In the LABB report's recommendations, No. 1 with a bullet is for more cooperation between refineries and the LABB. The organization has had some correspondence with refineries, but the refineries haven't responded to any of its reports. Refineries see LABB not as an ally but an enemy, Rolfes says. "They hate us," she adds. "But we don't want to say 'I told you so.'"

The report says updates to equipment and facilities, save lives, create more efficient refineries and create jobs.

Pursuing legal action would be a last resort, Rolfes says. LABB doesn't want to distance itself but would rather discuss options — it has already done the work refineries would have had to pay a consultant to do, she says.

But it wouldn't be the first time the organization has gone that route. In the February 2005 case of St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality Inc. and LABB vs. Chalmette Refining LLC at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, federal Judge Sarah Vance ruled that ExxonMobil violated the Clean Air Act, and that it was likely violations would continue. "Unless some action is taken to prevent the illegal conduct, there is a real threat that such violations will continue to occur," the decision reads.

"It's time to get creative, roll up our sleeves and get to the bottom of this," Rolfes says. 

-- By Alex Woodward 

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