ExxonMobil — already in hot water for AK spill — blamed for New Orleans stench

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This would not be the week that you’d want to begin work in the ExxonMobil PR department. Indeed, this seems to be the time when the oil giant — in fact, the world’s most profitable company, let us never forget — and its proverbial chickens are finally coming home to roost. Just in time for Earth Day, ExxonMobil’s environment-be-damned efforts to feed America’s addiction to oil are spoiling the earth, and especially America’s corner of this planet, in ways that are increasingly difficult to ignore.

I should note here that I have a long personal history of doing battle with ExxonMobil — and winning. A dozen years ago, I was lead counsel in an oilfield radiation case that resulted in a verdict of $1.056 billion against the Big Oil icon for contaminating private property; ultimately the oil giant was ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for sickening workers and damaging a parcel of land in Harvey, La., with radioactive pipe..

Today, if you follow environmental news, then you’re probably somewhat up to speed on the awful events taking place in Arkansas right now, where oil spewed from ExxonMobil’s ruptured Pegasus pipeline about 25 miles northwest of Little Rock, spreading oil from the tar sands in Canada onto streets and roadways and even into Lake Conway, one of that state’s environmental treasures. The pipeline fiasco has been getting national attention — in part because of the appalling pictures coming out of Mayflower, Ark., but also because of worries that this is foreshadowing a much deeper tragedy that could take place if President Obama greenlights the Keystone XL pipeline.

Getting much less attention is the environmental harm taking place at the exact same time from the large refinery that ExxonMobil — which last year made $102 million in profit every day — operates in St. Bernard Parish just outside of my hometown of New Orleans. Last week, I told you about unexplained odors of rotten eggs wafting across the Crescent City, and guess who was the source:

A spill of condensate water from the flare system at the ExxonMobil Chalmette Refinery was the likely cause of the odor that wafted over the city on Wednesday, prompting hundreds of residents to report smells of burning tires and oil, according to the Coast Guard.

The refinery quickly reported and stopped the leak, but it remains unclear exactly what chemicals — or how much — may have been released.

“The leak was contained to a unit at the refinery,” Coast Guard officials said in a statement Thursday. “Air monitoring was initiated immediately upon discovery, and all monitoring throughout the incident has indicated no detection of (sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide or volatile organic compound) emissions immediately beyond the vicinity of the leak source or at the fence line.”

Here’s the scary part — neither ExxonMobil nor the various regulatory agencies really have a handle on what actually went down:

ExxonMobil first reported releasing 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and 10 pounds of benzene, a volatile organic carbon compound known to cause cancer, because those amounts are the minimum required for reporting, Screws said. But the company has since said it is unsure exactly what chemicals were involved or how much may have been released, he said.

Based on ExxonMobil’s track record in Louisiana and across the South, the story is likely to change several more times, and we may never know the entire truth. Meanwhile, in spite of numerous reports about the foul odors across the New Orleans region, the plant was not even ordered to shut down:

Residents from the region inhaled chemicals caused by the spill for more than a day, leading to reports of breathing difficulties and other ailments. But the Coast Guard rushed to soothe folks, assuring them not to worry their chemical-infused heads about it. From Reuters:

“We haven’t told the refinery to shut down because we haven’t any cause for a shutdown,” [Lieutenant Lily] Zeteza said. “We’ve no indication that this is dangerous.”

Hydrogen sulfide is in fact a highly toxic and dangerous chemical. Even at relatively low levels, exposure can cause headaches, breathing problems or even memory loss, and it can cause serious illness or even death at higher concentrations. Both the checkered track record of ExxonMobil at this facility, and the blase attitude from state and federal regulators, is outrageous. Thank God Louisiana is home to such truly involved citizens like the Bucket Brigade — or we might never learn even some of the truth.

You can read my April 4 blog post about the initial odor reports in New Orleans here: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/something-stinks-at-the-end-of-la-s-cancer-alley/

You can learn more about the Arkansas pipeline spill from my April 2 post here: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/arkansas-pipeline-disaster-a-foreshadowing-of-keystone-xl-nightmare/

To read more from NOLA.com about the Chalmette refinery spill, go to: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2013/04/exxonmobil_chalmette_refinery.html

For coverage of the ExxonMobil spill from Grist, please read: http://grist.org/news/exxonmobil-spills-chemicals-in-louisiana-while-cleaning-spilled-oil-in-arkansas/

 © Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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