Troubled Orion Refinery's storm preparations called into question

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(September 26, 2002) Neighbors of the troubled Orion Refinery today sent a letter to Orion Refinery today to demand that the refinery provide the community with detailed information regarding its preparations for heavy rains. "We are at risk, we live across the street from the tank that exploded last year," said Dorothy Jenkins, President of Concerned Citizens of New Sarpy. "We don't know if they have fixed any of the problems that led to last year's explosion. How are we supposed to feel safe?" The state Department of Environmental Quality, the Emergency Operations Commission and the EPA were copied on the letter.

Clark Johnson, CEO of Orion Refinery, told the St. Charles Parish Council last year that the June 7, 2001 fire at Orion was the "largest tank fire in US history." According to a report on the fire by MacArthur Fellow Chemist Wilma Subra, the tank fire was caused by faulty equipment at the refinery. "In this case, the drain system apparently was not functioning properly, may have been clogged or was of inadequate design to properly drain off the quantity of rain water." Residents have received no information since the fire to let them know if Orion has installed the proper equipment. "We live in fear," said Ms. Jenkins.

Wilma Subra's report noted that it is standard practice in the petrochemical industry in Louisiana to take the region's heavy rainfall into account when designing and maintaining a facility. "In South Louisiana, severe rainfall events are common and maximum rainfall quantities of 10 to 20 inches are commonly considered when designing structures and facilities."  Residents note that Orion frequently has problems after heavy rains. "Each time any accumulation of rainfall occurs over a 2 day period, which is natural in the climate we live in, that plant causes us problems," said Don Winston, an Orion neighbor who lives across the street from the tank that exploded last year. "Either the evaporative ponds overflow and dump harmful chemicals into the drainage canals or roofs on the big tanks capsize and mix water with gasoline and aviation fuel."

"Maybe we'll get lucky this time, and not have to witness one of these million gallon tanks rupture and spew its contents across our landscape," Don Winston. "But we have the right to know what preparations - if any - are being undertaken for our safety."

"Heavy rains and Orion are a disaster waiting to happen," said Shonda Lee, an Orion neighbor." Please Lord let it not be today."

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