The Times-Picayune: Bad air day; Tension-filled day at Shell plant re-energizes critics in St. Charles

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An army of Shell workers began knocking on doors early on Dec. 8, 1998. A chemical plant tank had overpressurized, threatening an explosion, and everyone should stay inside, they said. The community braced for the worst.

Over the years, Norco residents such as Margie Richard have grown to expect jarring noises and unpleasant odors from the massive St. Charles parish plant. But what they feared most was a reprise of the 1988 Shell refinery blast that killed seven workers and reverberated to Houma.

This time, there would be no explosion. By mid-day, Richard heard a radio report saying Shell had gotten the situation under control. So the longtime Norco critic was surprised by what came next from the gigantic chemical complex: a white, smoke-like cloud that residents said stung their eyes and burned their noses.

"I picked up the phone, and I called the DEQ and was put on hold," Richard told participants at a national environmental conference in Baton Rouge the next day. "I still haven't heard from them. It's the same old, same old."

The "same old, same old" from bureaucrats at the state Department of Environmental Quality exacerbated Richard's rage Dec. 8, and now the events stand out as a factor in pushing the Norco saga over the boiling point. The incident re-energized Norco citizens groups, who revived calls to be relocated, backed by air samples that they say point to dangerous contamination.

Environmentalists say the ruckus led to a heightened crackdown by federal regulators, some of whom heard Richard's remarks in Baton Rouge. The activists' strategy has been to bypass the state DEQ and force action by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

While the two agencies share responsibility for environmental enforcement, environmentalists have long complained about toothlessness at DEQ.

"It's pretty clear EPA laid down the law with DEQ," said Denny Larson, who coordinates a bucket brigade of air-quality monitors for Communities for a Better Environment, an Oakland, Calif., group. "If you look at the record of enforcement, you see a dramatic rise not only in the type of enforcement, but the fines."

Wilma Subra, a New Iberia chemist who works with environmental groups, said DEQ recently has stepped up its efforts, actions that are "clearly the result of EPA's being there."

DEQ officials defend the agency. The agency deployed officials to Norco to monitor the events of Dec. 8 and followed up by reviewing the company's air samples. To improve relations in Norco, the agency has set up a Norco-New Sarpy panel on community-industrial relations with monthly meetings at the American Legion Hall in Norco.

Sam Coleman, the director of enforcement for EPA's Region Six office in Dallas, said the Dec. 8 incidents did not alter the agency's approach because officials already were aware of the community's views. Although Shell has kept Coleman abreast of the company's general plans on relocation, he said the agency has no legal power to influence the situation. He said his agency continues to work with DEQ on a cooperative basis.

"I don't think it really changed my opinion," Coleman said. "I take any citizen complaint seriously." 

'Serious problem'

Yet, Coleman was a prime target of activists shortly after Richard's remarks in Baton Rouge on Dec. 9, 1998. In a scene captured in a homemade video by Larson, Coleman is seen surrounded by a cadre of citizens and environmentalists in a hallway outside a meeting room. The group came armed with pointed questions as to why EPA hadn't cracked down on Shell or pressured the company to relocate citizens. The badgering won an acknowledgment from Coleman of "an historic, serious problem" at Norco.

"It's on the top shelf," Coleman assured the crowd. "I have questions as to why these things happened, and I think these are legitimate questions."

The EPA later slapped Shell Chemical with a $27,500 fine for the Dec. 8 problems, the plant's biggest penalty since the fine following a 1990 federal inspection, EPA's last major sweep of Norco prior to 1999 audits. After the 1990 inspection, the federal agency proposed fining Shell $4 million, but lowered the fine to $1 million after Shell said it had implemented several upgrades at the plant to address the problems.

The federal penalties dwarf state remedies for most of the 1990s. Shell and its sister site at Norco, the Motiva Enterprises refinery, which is partially owned by Shell, reported 561 accidental releases between 1994 and 1998 to the National Response Center. DEQ fined the plants three times for a combined total of $14,500.

But since January 1999, DEQ has levied three fines on Shell Chemical. This includes a $66,095 penalty for missing fugitive emissions components. Shell is hoping to obviate the fine by sponsoring a beneficial environmental project. The state also has conducted a series of inspections of the Motiva refinery following a former employee's allegations of environmental violations. 

Facts elusive

The exact happenings on Dec. 8 are still in dispute and may never be completely resolved. Much of the confusion stems from the fact that there were two unrelated incidents that day at Shell.

About 8 a.m., Shell workers noticed excess pressure in a 5,000-gallon reactor tank at its resins unit. The tank contained methyl ethyl ketone, a highly flammable toxic chemical. Fearing a possible explosion, company staff contacted St. Charles emergency personnel, who in turn called other government officials. Education officials decided to reroute buses with children to a Destrehan high school. Company officials went door to door telling residents to stay inside.

Parish records show that Shell contacted St. Charles emergency preparedness officials 17 times in just over three hours on the red "hotline" phone. At 11:28 a.m., the company declared the 'all-clear' after company officials said they had lowered the pressure and temperature in the tank.

Less than an hour later, at 12:18 p.m., Shell notified St. Charles emergency officials of the second accident: a 400-pound spill of hydrocholoric acid. As a result, "a visible HCL plume drifted over the maintenance building and into the community, then rapidly dispersed,"

According to a report on the incident prepared by Shell and Loyola University professor Robert Thomas. Although the hydrochloric acid spill was below the reportable quantity, EPA issued the $27,500 fine for this incident.

Thomas, who is head of the Loyola University Center for Environmental Communications, said Shell made a "big mistake" Dec. 8 by not communicating with the community about the second incident. Community members didn't understand why there was a big, white cloud coming from Shell after the company gave the all-clear.

"The community was all up in arms, and the company didn't even realize," Thomas said. 
The tension was heightened by the disparity between the outlook of white Norco residents who work at Shell and that of black residents of the nearby Diamond community who have little contact with the plant, Thomas said.

"When the flares go off, the black people think it's getting ready to explode, whereas the whites see that there are safety mechanisms in place," Thomas said.

A subsequent report co-authored by Thomas and two Norco industry officials recommended providing tours of the facility and recruiting employees from Norco. 

Community education

To improve communication, DEQ began holding monthly community meetings. At one of the first sessions last fall of the Norco/New Sarpy Community-Industry Relations Panel, Cheri Flory, a DEQ environmental scientist, described the gathering as a "way for you to get to know someone whom you may not know very well."

Since then, DEQ has hired Education Resources Inc., a Baton Rouge company that facilitates meetings, as a disinterested party to run meetings and keep minutes, said DEQ ombudsman James Friloux. The major expenses for the effort are the $140 monthly fee to rent the room and the $7,500 contract with Education Resources, he said.

More recent meetings have focused on public health issues, emergency evacuation and the toxic releases. Community participants generally praise the gatherings as a productive step, although some have criticized DEQ for not better publicizing the meetings within the black community.

But Larson of Communities for a Better Environment argues that DEQ and Shell's emphasis on communication obscures the real issues and amounts to "a complete snow job."

Larson notes than in official write-ups of the first incident on Dec. 8, Shell did not explicitly say what happened to the methyl ethyl ketone in the overpressurized tank. He said the company has based its contention that "no chemicals were released to the community" on air monitoring that could detect methyl ethyl ketone at 5.25 parts per million.

Louisiana's ambient air standard for methyl ethyl ketone is 3.98 parts per million. That means that even if the emissions exceeded this limit, Shell's monitoring would not have caught the value unless it registered at 5.25 or above. 

Data challenged

About five hours after Shell gave the all-clear, Larson oversaw the first bucket brigade test from Norco, a testing method that allows community members to check air quality.

The sample showed the presence of 13 chemicals, with methyl ethyl ketone coming in the largest concentration. The chemical registered at 12 parts per billion, a level well below the Louisiana limit. However, the sample was taken at 4:41 p.m., many hours after the incident.

In response to the bucket sample, Shell said the quantity of methyl ethyl ketone present was typical for any urban environment. Shell spokesman Don Baker said the company would not comment further on the incident because it is the subject of litigation. Richard and a group of other residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against Shell for nuisance, fear and fright under tort law.

While EPA encourages data from both industry and the community, Coleman of EPA said neither air sample met the eight-hour regulatory requirement. Together, the two samples provided a "confusing and contradictory" picture.

The agency has no access to government air samples because DEQ didn't take any, even though a DEQ staff member was deployed Dec. 8 to monitor the events. Barring additional information, the agency has closed the case over the methyl ethyl ketone, he said.

"We know what the company reported, and I have no reason to believe they reported inaccurately," Coleman said. "It's hard enough to prove there was a release, and it's even harder to prove there wasn't."

Coleman is aware of DEQ's image problem, but declined to criticize the agency, saying inspectors "spend a lot of time in the field" and appear to be doing their job.

LOAD-DATE: October 24, 2000

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