Left Labor Reporter: Deferred maintenance causes worker injuries, worsens pollution

| News

December 14th, 2010


Gregory Starkey, Jr. died on the job. Seabell Thomas endured 12 days of an environmental disaster that left her and her neighbors breathing air polluted with tons of sulphur dioxide.

Both were victims of accidents at Louisiana oil refineries. According to a new report entitled Common Ground II, most of the 500 accidents that occur annually at Louisiana’s 17 refineries could be prevented with proper maintenance, but too often refinery companies defer maintenance sacrificing safety for the sake of profits. 

“Many refining accidents are preventable,” said United Steelworkers vice-president Gary Brown, whose union represents many of the workers at these refineries. “It takes adequate maintenance (and) heeding warning signs.”

The report produced by three Louisiana grassroots environmental groups and the United Steelworkers, says that Starkey’s death was the result of a preventable accident.

Starkey was a contract worker at ExxonMobil-owned Chalmette Refining. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended that the company repair its piping because it was a safety hazard, but the company chose to defer maintenance.

On October 6, sour gas started leaking from the piping, and Starkey died while trying to fix it.

According to Common Ground II, Chalmette Refining, had nearly 600 reported accidents between 2005 and 2009, about 22 percent of the 2,607 reported accidents at Louisiana refineries during this time.

Bad weather is one of the biggest causes of refinery accidents. Many of these bad weather accidents could be prevented with the proper precautions and maintenance.

In 2008, Hurricane Gustav blew through Louisiana. ExxonMobil improperly shut down its Baton Rouge refinery, and as a result, high winds knocked over the cooling tower, spewing 599,112 pounds of pollutants into the air, including sulfur dioxide, which causes respiratory illnesses.

For 12 days, “we had to sit outside all day and all night (because the storm knocked out electricity) breathing some of the worst pollution I ever experienced,” said Seabell Thomas, leader of Community Empowerment for Change, which helped write the report.

The bulk of the environmental damage done by these accidents is done to communities whose residents are primarily African-American. Of the 257,200 Louisiana residents who live within a two-mile radius of refineries, 122,900, or 48 percent, are African-American.

“I’ve lived in this community for 30 years and love it,” said Velma White, president of Residents for Air Naturalization, another of the reports sponsors.  “But because of the hardships we’ve experienced every day living near Calumet Lubricants (in Shreveport), you never know what to expect. Will it be a clear day or a day of repeated emissions?” White’s community is 85 percent African-American.

Common Ground II, which advocates among other things hiring more refinery workers to perform plant maintenance, is the second in a series of reports about the environmental impact of Louisiana’s oil refineries. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade has been leading source of information for these reports and is a co-author of the reports.

The Bucket Brigade is an environmental health and justice organization, whose purpose “is to assist fenceline neighbors in their campaign to make industry accountable for its pollution.”

by William Rogers, http://leftlaborreporter.wordpress.com/

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