Environmental groups look at pollution from refineries post-Hurricane Isaac
When a tropical storm or hurricane hits Louisiana, pollution in some form, including oil, chemicals and untreated wastewater and gas, is sure to follow, according to a report released Tuesday by the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.
In the report, “Lessons from Hurricane Isaac: Gulf Coast Industrial Facilities Still Not Storm-Ready,” the environmental groups looked at reports from six refineries and their members’ observations on pollution during last year’s storm.
“We’ve seen time and again every time a hurricane hits us, it causes damages to pipelines and rigs,” said Paul Orr, riverkeeper with the Lower Mississippi Riverkeepers. “It effects the refineries and the chemical plants.”
And yet, Orr said, these are storms that we know are going to happen living along the Gulf Coast.
“It seems like we’re not prepared,” he said.
In addition to the six refineries, the report also looked at coal terminals in south Louisiana and a chemical facility called Stolthaven, which reported 169,810 gallons of pollution released.
According to news reports, the storm flooded the Stolthaven facility in Braithwaite, lifting some storage tanks off their foundations and causing about 140 railroad cars at the facility to become derailed.
The state Department of Environmental Quality issued a $12,189 penalty to the facility at the time because it didn’t notify DEQ of an emergency situation within an hour of it happening. This penalty involved a release of several compounds from the facility on Aug. 30 but it wasn’t reported until Sept. 1.
Cheryl Nolan, assistant secretary of the office of environmental compliance at DEQ, said there have been no additional penalties against the Stolthaven facility, but there have been enforcement actions and remediation is occurring.
Although Baton Rouge facilities weren’t included in the report’s focus, they were mentioned. ExxonMobil Chemical plant had some minor issues with wind damage, but its refinery didn’t report any problems, according to Tuesday’s report.
“We were very fortunate in East Baton Rouge Parish to not have a significant spill like we had in other areas,” said Faith Ashton, Baton Rouge community organizer for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
The Gulf Monitoring Consortium is made up of member environmental groups and includes the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Gulf Restoration Network, SkyTruth, SouthWings and the Lower Mississippi Riverkeepers.
Its report focuses on six refineries including Marathon in Garyville, Motiva in Norco, Valero in Norco, Chalmette Reining, Valero in Meraux and Phillips 66 Alliance refinery in Plaquemines Parish.
Of the facilities included in the report, a total of 341,044 gallons of oil, chemicals and untreated wastewater were released as well as 192 tons of gasses and other materials as a result of the storm. Marathon’s refinery also released 12.6 million gallons of untreated wastewater after its storage capacity filled.
“This wasn’t treated in any way,” Anne Rolfes, of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said about the storm water.
According to reports from the Marathon Petroleum company, it has an onsite capacity for wastewater treatment storage of more than 26 million gallons and also had additional capacity in a crude oil tank, but that filled as well as rain fell.
Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said facilities are required to have a certain amount of storm water storage capacity and after that is full, the rest can be discharged.
The theory, Metcalf said, is that as the rain falls onto a facility and is collected, any oily residue or other contaminants will be washed into the storage system.
“You’ve caught the worst of it by your allowed capacity,” Metcalf said. “Then you’re allowed to release the rest of it.”
Rolfes said it seems that facilities that had controlled shutdowns of their operations fared better during the storm than the ones that continued to operate.
One example is Motiva, which didn’t shut down, Rolfes said, and ended up releasing 120 tons of air pollution, according to the report.
“They took a gamble that they wouldn’t get hit,” Rolfes said.
Other facilities had ongoing problems before the storm that Isaac just made worse, she said, using Chalmette Refining as an example.
“They did shut down and that was great,” Rolfes said.
But the sulfur recovery unit wasn’t working and 58 tons of sulfur dioxide were released into the air as a result.
However, Sam Phillips, assistant secretary of DEQ, said the agency is very comfortable with the hurricane preparedness of industrial facilities, but said every storm is different and brings new challenges.
Although some may say just shut the facilities down and prevent any problems, “it’s not a simple equation to say shut down and you’re safe. It’s not that simple,” Phillips said, adding that it can take days and even a week to safely shut down a facility.
Metcalf said every facility has its own criteria for when to shut down its operations, depending on the storm track and other factors, and conditions can change quickly as the storm changes.
For example, on the morning of Aug. 26, the National Weather Service had Isaac hitting the Florida panhandle, but by late Sunday, the forecast showed the storm heading west of the Mississippi River. Isaac made first landfall Aug. 28 and a second landfall Aug. 29, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“We can shut down when a storm enters the Gulf but if there’s nothing to run your generator, we’re going to be blamed for shutting down,” Metcalf said. “It’s a difficult position to be in.”
However, consortium members said these facilities operate in south Louisiana and should be better prepared for these expected events.
“I can have some sympathies that it’s a storm,” Rolfes said. But if pollution is released because a facility chose not to shut down or didn’t have a piece of equipment repaired before a storm hit, then that’s a problem, she said.
“These are not things that are caused by a storm,” Rolfes said.
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