Times-Picayune: Louisiana oil refineries' accident record needs improvement, report says

| News

December 13th, 2010

By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune 

Louisiana's 17 oil refineries have an abysmal record of accidents that have resulted in the release of millions of pounds of polluting chemicals into the air and water, threatening both their own workers and the more than 200,000 people who live in neighborhoods within two miles of the plants, according to a new report sponsored by the Bucket Brigade, other neighborhood environmental groups and the United Steelworkers Union.

The accident record should be considered as a warning of future disasters in light of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, said Anne Rolfes, founder of the New Orleans-based Bucket Brigade.

"What we're finding in refineries' own data is that they're having 10 accidents a week," she said. "That's a big red flag to us. We don't want to have another situation like BP, where we have to stand up and say, 'We told you so.'"

Doing a better job of addressing the causes of those accidents, by instituting better planning for serious weather events and better maintenance programs for aging piping and equipment, could result in major investments in Louisiana by the refineries' parent companies that would also add jobs, they say.

Rolfes said the report, "Common Ground II: Why Cooperation to Reduce Accidents at Louisiana Refineries is Needed Now," is the second in an attempt to counter what she said has been a "knee-jerk response from government and industry that any source of attention to this problem will be bad for the economy."

Chris John, executive director of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, which represents many of the refinery companies, did not respond to a request for a comment on the report. Instead, he cited his organization's refusal to meet with federal Environmental Protection Agency, Bucket Brigade and other environmental groups following release of the organization's first Common Ground report in February because that report contained numerous errors, and because of concerns about ongoing litigation against individual refineries and potential anti-trust litigation against the industry.

In his letter to EPA officials, John pointed out that the industry was under great pressure from the federal government and state governments to get its refineries running after hurricanes, when many of the releases occurred.

Officials with the state Department of Environmental Quality raised questions about some of the numbers in the report, and defended the accident responses of both the department and the refineries.

For instance, companies are required to routinely update reports to the state that outline what might be a worst-case accident, said Kermit Wittenburg, technical advisor for the department's air permitting program.

"They have to come up with scenarios and look for engineering techniques in order to minimize or eliminate as many as possible," he said. "The regulations also say that, hey, if something happens, you need to go back and rethink your plans and set up different situations and methodologies, based on your experience."

The accident rate of 10 a week was based on information reported to the state Department of Environmental Quality from 2005 to 2009 by the refineries. ExxonMobil's behemoth refinery in Baton Rouge reported 569 accidents for the five years, the most in the state and representing more than two accidents a week. Ranking second was the company's Chalmette Refining Co. in St. Bernard Parish, with 419 accidents. A Citgo Corp. refinery in Lake Charles tallied 386 accidents, ranking it third.

The report concluded, however, that refinery accident data is being underreported, and surmised that the number of accidents is likely far higher than shown in the report.

The ExxonMobil Baton Rouge refinery, Chalmette Refining and the Citgo refinery also ranked first, second and third, respectively, in failing to list the cause of their accidents in their reports to state officials.

"In explaining the cause of an accident, the most common response given by Louisiana refineries was 'No Information Given.' Such imprecise reporting is not only evidence of a poorly run refinery, but also inhibits understanding of the cause and potential solutions of accidents," the report said.

The second-biggest cause of accidents was equipment failures, followed by failures of piping or tubing.

The report cited Chalmette Refining as an example, with 11 percent of its accidents and its emissions into the air resulting from problems with piping or tubing.

"In 2009, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Chalmette Refining for ignoring nine safety recommendations on piping," the report said. "The OSHA investigators found that problems with pipes 'were still not resolved six years later.'"

Following the death of Chalmette Refining employee Gregory Starkey on Oct. 6, the company reported that the pipe Starkey was working on had been temporarily clamped for two weeks: "Gas line ... started leaking sour gas to the atmosphere through a previously installed clamp."

The report blamed part of the problem on deferred maintenance and industry cost-cutting that has resulted in the layoff of older, more experienced workers.

The hiring of new, younger workers also has resulted in a workforce not willing to press management by taking "stop work" measures -- where any employee believing there's an unsafe condition can call for a plant shutdown -- for fear of losing their jobs, said United Steelworkers staff representative John Link Jr.

"Just saying you have stop-work authority and actually having people that will step up and risk losing their job to stop that work, that's something else," he said.

Many of the accidents result in the rerouting of toxic and flammable material to flares, which burn it off, either during the accident itself or while restarting operations.

The report recommended that the industry implement changes that would minimize the amount of material shunted to flares by capturing and recycling gases. It said such practices already have been adopted in California's Bay Area Quality Management District in San Francisco, by Lion Oil Co.'s El Dorado, Ark., refinery, and by Dow Chemical Co. in Freeport, Texas.

It also recommended a variety of measures to reduce weather-related accidents, including building backup power systems and revised guidelines on when and how to shut down facilities prior to hurricanes.

One of the biggest weather-related chemical releases occurred when Hurricane Gustav hit the ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge, said Mariko Toyoji, a Bucket Brigade research assistant.

"They couldn't decide whether to shut down or not, and that's understandable, but they decided not to and a cooling tower blew down and almost 600,000 pounds of sulphur dioxide (was released)," Toyoji said. "Understandably, it's a complicated situation because it's a storm. But there's no evidence that after that problem, they then went back and analyzed what we can do better."

A spokesman for ExxonMobil said he was unable to address the report, but defended the company's record.

"While I won't speak directly about this report, I can say that ExxonMobil's goal is to drive injuries, illnesses and operational incidents with environmental impact to zero," said William Hinson, public affairs manager for Chalmette Refining.

"We take our compliance responsibilities seriously and we routinely report emissions to the EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, as appropriate, in a consistent and timely manner and comply with all laws, regulations and permits," he said.

The report also recommended upgrading emergency response measures to assure that neighbors adjacent to the plants are provided with the same information as first-responders.

LABB Text Alerts

News Archive

Press Release Archive

Blog Archive

Contact Us

Louisiana Bucket Brigade
2803 Saint Phillip Street
New Orleans, LA 70119

 (504) 484-3433
 (504) 324-0332
 info (@) labucketbrigade.org