Bucket Brigade: Air pollution increases at refineries in 2012

In issuing its annual report on refinery accidents and pollution releases Tuesday, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade took a slightly different approach by urging refinery workers, employees and people living around the facilities to report what they see, hear and smell.

“It’s a tricky situation for people to give information, but it can be done,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

She said the report is being issued as part of the group’s Oil Industry Accident Awareness Month in November.

“We find there are a lot of people who have information and we need people to step up,” she said.

According to the report, there were 327 accidents last year, down from 346 accidents in 2011.

However, the amount of material released last year due to those accidents was more than in 2011 with 2.3 million pounds of air pollution — a 15 percent increase over 2011 — and 12.7 million gallons of water pollution.

Oil industry representatives questioned the report’s accuracy.

“As we begin to review the Bucket Brigade’s report, it’s worth noting that state regulators and others have expressed deep concerns about the credibility with previous iterations of this annual report,” says a statement from the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association.

“What we do know, however, is that Louisiana is enjoying an energy boom that is creating thousands of good-paying jobs and helping boost the state’s economy, all while making strong environmental progress and improving worker safety.”

ExxonMobil Baton Rouge public and government affairs manager Stephanie Cargile also took issue with the report, stating in an email that the Baton Rouge complex has made drastic reductions in air pollution from 1990 to 2012 including a 75 percent decrease in volatile organic compounds and a 73 percent decrease in carbon monoxide releases.

One of the report’s key findings was that, although the number of accidents was down last year, the amount of material released was more, largely because of Hurricane Isaac.

About 45 percent of the causes listed for the unplanned releases of pollution at the refineries were weather events, according to the report.

Rolfes said the weather-related reports aren’t all from tropical storms with many of the reasons given for accidental releases listed as rain and wind.

She said this has prompted a local saying in Chalmette.

“The locals say it looks ‘cloudy with a chance of oil,’ ” Rolfes said.

The report also asserts there are accidents at refineries that go unreported or are under reported. Rolfes said she and Louisiana Bucket Brigade know this is the case because workers tell the organization about the accidents or incidents that don’t show up on the records.

One example involves a release of materials at ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge facility where there was an initial report of at least 10 pounds of benzene as required by law within an hour of the release.

It turned out the release was more than 31,000 pounds. Although that was reported to DEQ, it was something residents and workers at the plant had already reported to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade earlier, according to the report.

Cargile, with ExxonMobil, responded that there was extensive air monitoring for two weeks during and after the release by the facility and DEQ and there were no off-site impacts detected.

“Neither LDEQ nor ExxonMobil received any community complaints of odors or health impacts on the day of the incident or during the week following the incident,” Cargile wrote.

A delay in reporting a changing situation to DEQ was part of an enforcement action DEQ took against the facility earlier this year but DEQ officials said that delay is not the norm.

“I would think the ExxonMobil incident is more of an isolated incident rather than a common process,” said Celena Cage, administrator of the enforcement division at DEQ.

A final finding in the report states refineries should be required to measure, not estimate, how much and what type of pollution is leaving the stacks of the facility.

The report gives a number of suggestions about how individuals, DEQ employees, facilities workers or others can make reports either to regulatory agencies or to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s iwitnesspollution.org.

Cage said as the department with the authority to investigate environmental problems, anyone can anonymously report concerns to DEQ through (225) 219-3640 or toll free at (888) 763-5424.

Editor’s note: This story was modified Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, to correct a reference to the type of releases ExxonMobil Baton Rouge says decreased by 73 percent since 1990. It is carbon monoxide, not carbon dioxide. The Advocate regrets the error.