Residents near Baton Rouge’s ExxonMobil Chemical Plant and federal and state environmental officials Tuesday urged the need for better dialogue and communication in the wake of a June 14 spill of naphtha and the fears and concerns the spill prompted.
Some residents expressed fears about what’s in the air and concerns about health impacts and how to reduce spills and releases at nearby industries. Others also discussed involvement in community dialogue groups with ExxonMobil to address those issues during a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency environmental justice community meeting.
“We received a number of inquiries regarding the release that occurred a couple months ago that was probably not handled as well by ExxonMobil as it could have been,” said Sam Coleman, acting regional administrator of EPA, referring to June 14 spill.
Due to those questions and follow-up discussions, Coleman said, the EPA decided that this could be an opportunity to have a dialogue with the community and to help the community pull together for a more cohesive approach to solving problems.
“When you receive individualized complaints it becomes difficult because not everyone pulls in the same direction,” Coleman said.
At Tuesday’s meeting at church on Winbourne Avenue, residents expressed concerns primarily about a June 14 spill of naphtha, which includes benzene, at the plant on Scenic Highway. Staff at the plant reported the spill when it occurred because it was above the reporting level required by law.
However, questions arose later from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality on whether the state and other responding agencies were updated in a timely manner when plant staff realized the spill was much larger than initially reported.
DEQ issued a compliance order and notice of potential penalty against ExxonMobil Chemical on July 19. Although facility representatives told DEQ on June 18 that the spill appeared to be larger than initially reported, it was June 20 when final estimates of the spill was provided in writing to DEQ.
The total estimated amount of the release of naphtha included 8,688 pounds of benzene, 10,882 pounds of toluene, 1,100 pounds of cyclohexane, 1,564 pounds of hexane and 12,605 pounds of additional volatile organic compounds, according to the order filed by DEQ on July 19.
“This matter is still under investigation. This is not closed,” said Cheryl Nolan, assistant secretary office of environmental complains with DEQ. “We have taken this incident very seriously and we hold ExxonMobil accountable.”
Derek Reese, senior section supervisor of permit and compliance coordination with ExxonMobil Chemical, said he and others from ExxonMobil were attending the meeting to listen and take notes about residents’ concerns.
“We’ve been in the community for 100 years,” he said. “We’re proud to be here and it’s important to have direct communication with our neighbors.”
Reese said ExxonMobil took hundreds of air quality readings after the June 14 naphtha spill occurred and continued that monitoring for several weeks. All of those monitor readings were below detectable levels and no material went to the river or the soil, he said.
They monitored for benzene specifically because the naphtha was about 50 percent benzene, Reese said.
About 85 people attended Tuesday’s meeting, but many of them were representatives of various local, state and federal agencies.
One of the things residents discussed was getting more involved with the ExxonMobil community dialogue groups to help expand the conversation.
“Fears of living around plants are always going to be there,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith who said she also worked at ExxonMobil for more than 20 years. However, the communication between the facilities and the communities is important and needs to continue in order to help with those fears, said Smith, D-Baton Rouge.
Ellen Davidson, who lives within a mile of the ExxonMobil facilities, agreed and said that as a member of an ExxonMobil community dialogue group, she had those same fears of what the plants were releasing and the flaring of material.
After becoming a part of that group about two years ago, Davidson said she had to let ExxonMobil officials know there are different ways to view what goes on at the plant.
“I had to tell those plant managers that when you say smoke, we hear fire,” Davidson said, which is part of educating ExxonMobil on what kind of information is most useful to residents. “We want accuracy, we want openness and we want honesty.”