Hearing set on Exxon plant proposal

Several environmental groups and individuals asked that a public hearing be set to discuss the proposed expansion at ExxonMobil’s chemical plant in Baton Rouge.

The state Department of Environmental Quality granted that request and the public hearing is set for 6 p.m. March 12 at the DEQ conference center in the Natchez room.

The permit request from ExxonMobil would allow the plant to do a number of things with the aromatics production unit and produce 20 percent more toluene and benzene, according the public notice.

The requested permit includes upgrades to pumps and piping, an increase in the size of control valves to allow for the additional production and an increase in the firing rate of a furnace.

However, environmental groups point to some pollution releases in the last year at the facility and said that should be enough to justify holding a public hearing on the proposed expansion, according to letters from the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and the Baton Rouge Group of the Sierra Club.

“Given the long-standing air quality problems faced by the Baton Rouge area, the proposal to expand production at the ExxonMobil facility deserves adequate and open public explanation, and clearly meets the threshold for a significant degree of public interest to justify holding a public hearing on this matter,” according to the request letter that LEAN, the Lower Mississippi Riverkeepers and the Atchafalaya Basinkeepers group sent to DEQ.

Marylee Orr, LEAN executive director, said “We’re concerned because the expansion would increase production of benzene and toluene.”

The public hearing will be a chance to get more information about what the facility plans to do, she said. LEAN hasn’t decided whether to oppose the permit or not.

“In East Baton Rouge, it’s the facility I get called the most about,” Orr said.

In addition, she said, there are neighborhood concerns about safety especially in wake of tens of thousands of pounds of benzene released at the facility last summer.

“I am concerned because we see there’s been an ongoing pattern of upsets at the facility,” Orr said.

The proposed permit would include some increase in pollution such as with particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide.

However, a number of toxic air pollutant releases will be decreased including ethyl benzene, styrene, toluene and xylenes, according to the permit application. Toxic air pollutants like these are “those pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects,” according to information from DEQ.

“The project will result in reduced energy use and increased production capacity for our aromatics unit while improving efficiencies in our chemical plant operations,” Lana Sonnier Venable, of ExxonMobil Baton Rouge public and government affairs, wrote in an email.

Sam Phillips, DEQ assistant secretary, said the permit is more about a change in procedure in the plant and really doesn’t have much impact on the amount of pollution released or not released.

“These are all very insignificant changes,” Phillips said.