ExxonMobil expansion debated

Supporters of a proposed air permit modification at the ExxonMobil Chemical Plant on Tuesday highlighted its safety record, support for community programs and work in lowering air pollution releases.

Opponents countered that the plant has a questionable safety record and the expansion would add pollution and could affect ozone pollution.

The public testimony at a Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality hearing concerned a request to modify the air permit for the Aromatics Production Unit at the plant in which the facility plans to increase the production of toluene and benzene by 20 percent.

About 50 people attended the hearing.

Although the proposed permit calls for the increase of some air pollution such as particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, it would include some decreases in toxic air pollutants such as styrene, toluene and ethyl benzene.

Specifically, the requested permit modification includes upgrades to pumps and pipe additions and modifications, resizing of control valves for more production and increasing the firing rate for a furnace.

Gerard Forde, intermediates and aromatics process department head with ExxonMobil Chemical Plant, said the request would increase the plant’s efficiency and production capability.

Forde said this unit is one of the most heavily regulated units and that the safety of workers and contractors is critical to the company. “My key goal is to make sure my folks go home the way they came,” he said.

While some area residents expressed their support for the permit request and praised ExxonMobil for its work, safety record and community support, others said they had concerns and oppose any expansion until concerns at the facility are addressed.

“To my mind, what’s coming out of that plant is not fit for human consumption,” said Kendall King, who lives within two miles of the facility. “From what I experience almost on a daily basis, it’s not clean air.”

Betty Burden, who also lives within two miles of the plant, is an employee of ExxonMobil. She participated in the community dialogue group with ExxonMobil and praised the company for communicating with residents and for its focus on safety.

Other supporters of the permit included representatives from churches and faith-based organizations that have received support from the company and business organization speakers who talked about the jobs and the aid to the economy that come from ExxonMobil.

But environmental groups and other community members expressed their concern about what an expansion of producing capacity could mean.

The Louisiana Environmental Action Network submitted comments that raised concerns about the amount of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds. These compounds are the precursor to the formation of ozone pollution, which forms when these pollutants mix in the air during hot, sunny weather. When there is little wind, ozone can build up in the air and cause breathing and other health problems.

The five-parish Baton Rouge doesn’t meet a more stringent standard and is classified as “marginal” by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This classification gives the five-parish area three years from the setting of the new standard to meet the standard.

In addition, Louisiana Environmental Action Network Executive Director Marylee Orr’s submitted comments that raised questions about the possibility of larger benzene releases if the proposed permit is allowed.

The comments pointed out a June 14 incident when 28,688 pounds of benzene were released at the plant.

Anna Hrybyk, program manager with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said she feels that “the permit is missing critical details.” The organization’s main concerns are about safety, meeting the federal ozone standard and more monitoring being included in the permit, she said.