By Community Organizer Dylan Maisel
At first, when a company operates unsafely and inadequately, they are often met with disapproval and backlash. Yet when this company continues to operate unsafely, time after time, they gradually lower their operating standard and thus, normalize their faulty performance. This is exactly what is happening with the Motiva Refinery in Norco, Louisiana – a town that has literally grown up with refineries in their backyard.
On December 2, during the annual Motiva-Sponsored Norco Christmas parade, the Motiva Refinery started flaring. It is still flaring today, eight days later. This Friday, over ten members of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, including myself, drove out to Norco to conduct follow-up health surveys as well as brief interviews concerning what members of the community had witnessed with regards to this flare.
Interviews and health surveys are sensitive in a town like Norco, where virtually all of its members have close ties to the industry. Despite this fact, the majority of people we spoke to were very open and willing to talk about this issue. People explained that the flaring had begun during the early afternoon on Sunday, releasing thick black smoke and a 30-50 foot flame that lights up the night sky. Many community members described that it seemed like daylight at all hours of the night. The reported health effects varied from person to person. Some people reported nothing at all and others reported sudden impact, such as chronic coughing, sore throat, and severe headaches.
Despite the significant harm to their health, the majority of community members did not seem upset with the refinery. Rather, they choose a “this if life” approach to analyze the situation. Many residents readily accepted Motiva’s letter in the mail that subtly apologized for the “inconvenience” and stated their intention to end the flaring as soon as possible. Yet didn’t they want to know why the flaring occurred and what chemicals were being burned? Very few residents with whom I spoke knew that Butadiene, Benzene, and Hydrogen Sulfide, all known carcinogens in small amounts, were being burned in the atmosphere just outside their homes. Just as very few knew that the flaring was due to an equipment malfunction that could have potentially been avoided with proper maintenance.
Coming into this situation as an outsider, I thought to myself “Why are Norco residents not in uproar about the massive amount of chemicals that are being in burned in their backyard and likely contributing to the high levels of respiratory illnesses and cancer in their community?” The answer lies in the 209 accidents that have occurred at Motiva during the past six years and the unique culture of Norco.
Two hundred and nine accidents have the effect of normalizing this harmful situation. Residents begin to regard accidents as a regular part of the business and not an act that could be avoided if the refineries properly maintained their equipment and performed less haphazardly.
The culture of Norco comes into play here as well. It is very hard to be so critical of a company when they give computers to the local school and fund local events, and not to mention, employ a great amount of its residents. These are all great things, but they are not enough to counterbalance the harm that these chronic and continuous “accidents” are causing to community health.
Accidents do not have to be an integral part of the refinery industry. Residents of Norco should not have to wake up to the smell of butadiene, hesitant to let their children play outside. Motiva must be held responsible for its high accident rate and its lack of consideration for Norco’s health. Motiva can become a better neighbor by properly maintaining its equipment, establishing a safer protocol during bad weather, and being more transparent about their operation. Norco deserves better and it is up to all residents of Louisiana to hold these refineries accountable. We need to raise our standards in order to compel them to raise their standards of performance. We cannot allow their irresponsible conduct to continue with slight consequences. Industrial pollution does not have to be a normal part of our lives.
*Statistics from “Common Ground IV: The Call for Cooperation to Reduce Accidents at Refineries in Louisiana”