By Michael Patrick Welch
On November 12, in a tiny office on Canal St., the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), an information and activism organization, held a press conference to raise awareness of the high number of oil industry accidents in Louisiana.
Big oil’s 327 unauthorized chemical releases in 2012 alone equaled 2,347,688 pounds of air pollution, and 12,745,442 gallons of water pollution, according to LABB’s statistics—a 20-percent increase since 2011.
“Accidents are happening more often, and they’re worse,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of LABB. “Refineries are having equipment failures. They are not prepared for our weather. They need to put as much money and effort into working toward zero accidents as they do toward new oil-drilling technologies.”
To celebrate what LABB has deemed Oil Industry Accident Awareness Month, the group has published an eight-page pamphlet of new information titled, “Mission: Zero Accidents.” The pamphlet’s EPA-approved original statistics and charts were gleaned from publicly accessible oil industry accident reports. Those reports were measured against LABB’s very active iWitness Pollution Map, where concerned community members report flares from local refineries, bad smells, and other irregularities. Rolfes said that these community reports often pressure oil companies into filing official reports for incidents that would have otherwise slipped by.
“Since the first edition of this annual refinery accident report was released in 2009,” states LABB’s “Mission: Zero Accidents,” “the managers of Louisiana’s 17 refineries have been asked to work collaboratively to solve the accident problem. Only Marathon Oil has responded… the rest of the refineries – as well as the trade associations – have steadfastly refused to even acknowledge that there is a problem.”
“Mission: Zero Accidents,” provides a list of 2012’s top ten Air Pollution Accidents. To better aid this research, LABB is currently pushing for more “stack testing” in the industry, meaning more exact measurement of the harmful chemicals released into the environment, rather than the traditional estimates taken by the refineries themselves.
The Motiva/Shell company based in Norco, La., took the accident list’s top five spots. The only other speaker at the press conference was Wilton Ladet, a United Steel Workers union representative who also works for Motiva/Shell. “I was surprised when I saw that list,” said Ladet.
An electrician at oil refineries for 22 years, Ladet opined that the main cause of recent accidents has been a cutback in full-time operators, and a proliferation of non-union contract workers. “The companies can just fire and hire these guys whenever they like,” said Ladet. “And so they never really learn the rules or the equipment like they need to. It’s just not the same level of craftsmanship you’d get from full-time workers.”
Ladet said accident statistics are directly tied to the frequency and quality of each refinery’s “turnaround” processes – meaning, the scheduled process of temporarily shutting down large sections of a plant in order to do repairs. Because an inert plant loses money, Ladet says, turnarounds are being scheduled farther and farther apart. Ladet says Motiva/Shell brought in nearly three thousand contract workers to execute a now nearly complete month-long turnaround that cost Motiva/Shell $80 million.
Rolfes of LABB agrees that refineries need to hire more, and more knowledgeable, workers, and also invest in new equipment more often. Rolfes and LABB are also calling for refineries to shut down during storms, and to install better backup power systems.
LABB’s Oil Industry Accident Awareness Month includes a full roster of oil industry-themed photo and art exhibits, movies and plays such as “Possum Kingdom,” presented by Cripple Creek Theatre Company, inspired by the unfolding environmental ruination and societal crises in south Louisiana (October 18 – November 10 and November 23 in New Orleans). There’s an outdoor performance of popular new production “Cry You One,” a storytelling journey through Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands (October 26 to November 24 in St. Bernard, including weekends). November 2, the Down By the River Bike Tour explored environmental and African American history along Louisiana’s River Road.