Reuters: Louisiana refineries averaged 10 upsets a week-study

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December 14th, 2010

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Louisiana's 17 refineries averaged 10 upsets a week between 2005 and 2009, according to a study of emission reports by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmentalist coalition, and the United Steelworkers union.

The study, released on Monday, also found 27 percent of excess air emissions due to upsets at Louisiana refineries came during bad weather between 2005 and 2009, when the state was lashed by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav.

The study is part of an initiative by the Steelworkers, representing a majority of U.S. refinery workers, and environmental groups in Louisiana to improve reliability at refineries, reduce accidents and pollution.

"This is stuff where we could be suing them in court, but we're trying to work with them," said Louisiana Bucket Brigade director Anne Rolfes.

The upsets between 2005 and 2009 released 21.8 million pounds of excess pollution into the atmosphere, according to the study.

The two Louisiana refineries operated by Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N: Quote) and Citgo Petroleum Corp's Lake Charles, Louisiana, refinery accounted for half of the upsets.

"Exxon averaged two accidents a year," said Mariko Toyoji, who co-wrote the study with Rolfes. "This pollution is on top of what they are permitted to release, which is thousands of pounds of pollutants per year."

An Exxon spokesman did not have comment about the study.

The study reviewed 2,607 upsets reported by the state's refineries to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality between 2005 and 2009. Each refinery is issued permits, which set ceilings for pollution at the refinery.

Accidents at refineries are due in part to deferred maintenance, which has seen the regular interval between overhauls on refinery units extended from every three to four years to as much six and seven years, said Jim Lefton, United Steelworkers official.

"If you run these units for six and seven years, you're going to have breakdowns," Lefton said.

He said the causes of the problems included cost-saving decisions by refiners and decisions by state and federal government about the power of regulators.

"This is a situation where the entire system has failed, Lefton said. "They don't care much about the workers and the neighbors who live around them. It's the whole system that's failing us."

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Steelworkers have invited refiners to join the Refinery Efficiency Initiative, a cooperative project between labor, industry and neighboring communities to reduce refinery upsets, Rolfes said.

At 3 million barrels per day in combined refining capacity, Louisiana has the second largest combined refining capacity in the United States. (Reporting by Erwin Seba)

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