By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
Air pollution generated by Louisiana’s 17 oil refineries has been steadily declining in the two decades since reporting requirements began, with last year’s emissions down by two-thirds from 1988 levels. But the state’s refineries still release far too much toxic material into the air as a result of accidents, according to a new study led by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which faults poor maintenance and aging piping for many of the accidental releases.
The state’s refineries averaged about an accident a day in 2010, the study found.
Accidents account for a little less than half of all toxic releases by refineries, which are allowed some emissions under their permits.
The good news: The 2010 accident rate was down substantially from the average rate for the five previous years, for which year-by-year data are not available. But study leader Anne Rolfes of the Bucket Brigade says that five-year span saw large releases of toxic chemicals occurred during the shutdown and startup of refineries for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, which drove up the average. Last year, there were no major storms to blame for such releases.
Rolfes also believes state records underestimate pollution from refineries because the state Department of Environmental Quality relies on company self-reporting and on estimates rather than direct measurements.
Industry officials counter that the report’s 2010 results are skewed upward by improper counting of the accidents, with some accidents being counted twice or even three times.
Rolfes denied any double-counting.
“We were very careful and did not do so, and they are not offering any examples of where we did so,” she said.
DEQ officials also don’t like the report’s use of the word “accident” to refer to what state rules call “upsets” or “unauthorized discharges,” said Celena Cage, administrator of the agency’s enforcement division.
Locally, Motiva Enterprises LLC’s Norco refinery had 39 accidents, the most in the seven-parish New Orleans area, in 2010, according to the Bucket Brigade report.
The report singles out as an accident example a March 2, 2010, incident at Motiva’s Norco refinery in which 100,000 pounds of volatile organic compounds were released when an emergency flare’s pilot flame failed to light. Two of the refinery’s processing units were being restarted after an emergency shutdown when the incident occurred.
That single accident represented about 10 percent of all the toxic releases emitted in accidents at Louisiana refineries last year.
The refinery has repeatedly gotten crosswise with DEQ. In July, DEQ concluded a 10-year negotiation with Motiva over repeated violations involving its emergency flares and other pollution control equipment that resulted in the company paying a $215,662 civil penalty.
The settlement closed the book on 29 sets of violations of federal and state laws between January 2005 and November 2010 that included 17 spills, illegal releases or improper overflows of holding tanks or ponds in 2005 and 2006 involving oil and other materials, including sewage.
Kayla Macke, media relations coordinator for Motiva, declined to comment on the Bucket Brigade study except to say, “there are inaccuracies with the reporting and data.”
The state settlement is part of a larger federal-state program begun in 2001 aimed at reducing emissions of pollutants from refinery flares nationwide. State officials cite the program and settlement as proof that they’re successfully enforcing state and federal laws.
The refineries also have responded to concerns raised by the state about their ability to shut down before hurricanes and restart afterward, Cage said.
Also assisting in compiling the report were the Baton Rouge-based Community Empowerment for Change and Shreveport-based Residents for Air Neutralization. The report also was sponsored by the United Steelworkers union, which represents workers at several of the state’s refineries.