This is a bad news/good news post about a major threat to public health that most folks outside of Louisiana don’t know about, and how a hearty band of citizens was able to get results in the face of a Big Oil giant that’s hellbent on lying and state regulators who are normally prone to help big corporations cover things up. In the past, I’ve told you that Louisiana — in addition to the natural and environmental threats that get so much national publicity, such the aftermath of the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina — also copes on a daily basis with an array of massive oil refineries and chemical plants, many of them with poor environmental track records.
One of the biggest complexes, and one of the most dangerous, is located in the capitol city of Baton Rouge and is operated by the same folks who brought you the Exxon Valdez disaster, the ExxonMobil Corp. Here the world’s biggest oil company operates both the nation’s third-largest oil refinery as well as a large chemical plant. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a top-notch group of environmental activists, has documented an alarming rate of accidents, especially at ExxonMobil’s refinery. Over one five-year stretch, accident reports — often involved the release of toxic pollution — were taking place at the pace of two every week; in the typical year of 2010, about 30 percent of all the refinery accidents in the state were taking place at ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge site.
Over the winter, the Bucket Brigade staged several protests at the complex, pleading with ExxonMobil to hire more workers, make needed repairs, and takes steps to ensure the plant will be closed ahead of a natural disaster. The group noted that it’s an abuse of human rights — a strong term, but totally justified in this case — for the oil giant to release tons of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, into the air that Baton Rouge residents breathe. Their pleas fell on deaf ears — little if anything was done to upgrade the plant, and the perpetually weak Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, a paper tiger that’s usually in the back pocket of industry, also did nothing of consequence.
And so over a two-day stretch in mid-June, there was a series of toxic releases from the ExxonMobil complex. As is so typical case, the company’s reaction was to obfuscate, to report the minimum possible and hope that no one paid close attention. Last month, on June 14, there was an accident at the chemical facility involving a valve that released the substance naphtha, which contains high levels of benzene. Initially, ExxonMobil sought to report the release was only 10 pounds, not enough to trigger a significant response. But nearby residents knew something far worse was happening.
Then Friday, DEQ received an email from the environmental group Louisiana Bucket Brigade, expressing concern about the release. Nolan said she responded that the release was reported as 10 pounds of benzene, and air monitoring didn’t show any reason for concern.
Then on Saturday, Nolan said, DEQ received another email from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade that said community members were smelling odors and people were getting severe headaches.
“I was in the neighborhood on Thursday with two EPA officials,” said Anna Hrybyk, program manger of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
She described a burning oil type of scent and said she had a headache.
“Both of the EPA officials covered their nose and ran to their car,” she said.
That wasn’t all. Workers at the plant then reported that 700 gallons of naphtha had also been released into the sewer system. Officials from ExxonMobil revised their estimate of the spill dramatically upward once, and then twice. In the end, it reported that more than 28,000 pounds, or 14 tons, of the carcinogen benzene had been released along with a toxic stew of other dangerous chemicals.
The good news is that — largely because of the aggressive monitoring of citizens through the Bucket Brigade, which really pressed the issue — the Louisiana DEQ has come down with a much more forceful action than we’ve come to expect. Last Thursday, the much-maligned state agency filed a complaint against ExxonMobil, citing the Big Oil icon for a wide range of potential violations. The DEQ order cites the company for failing to properly inform the state about the increase in the leak, for failing to maintain the valve where the incident occurred, and for the unauthorized release of benzene and other highly toxic chemicals, both into the air and into the sewage system. The penalties could run as high as $27,500 per day for each violation; that could add up, although the test will be to see if DEQ really keeps up the pressure.
The truth is, if the Bucket Brigade had not become involved and summoned another agency, the federal EPA, it’s doubtful that much would have happened here, even as residents near the plant got sick from breathing the tainted air. This spring, I joined with the Bucket Brigade in urging the EPA to step in and take over environmental protection in Louisiana — arguing that years of unchecked pollution and kowtowing to industry have shown that DEQ isn’t up to the job.
And this episode still doesn’t change anything. Louisiana’s refineries and chemical plants are still spewing too many toxins into the air, too often. And DEQ is still a toothless tiger too often, as well. A citizens’ arrest of a corporate polluter — which is what happened here for all intents and purposes — is a feel-good story, but it’s not enough. Louisiana needs real regulation, and real consequences, for those who befoul our Sportsmen’s Paradise — not once, but all the time.
To learn more about activists’ running battle against the ExxonMobil facility, go to: http://theadvocate.com/home/1627045-125/group-assails-plants-record.html
To read more about the June spill at the Baton Rouge plant, please read: http://www.labucketbrigade.org/article.php?id=1286
For information about the LDEQ complain against ExxonMobil, please read: http://www.leanweb.org/our-work/air/compliance-order-notice-of-potential-penalty-served-to-exxonmobil-corporation#
To read my May 21 post calling for the EPA to take over the DEQ’s functions on Louisiana, go to: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/louisiana-isnt-protecting-its-residents-from-hazardous-chemical-spills-so-its-time-for-feds-to-step-in
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