ExxonMobil fined by DEQ for June 14, 2012 pollution release

Four ExxonMobil facilities in Baton Rouge and Port Allen will be paying a total of more than $2.3 million in penalties, civil fines, environmental projects and internal improvements as part of a settlement that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and ExxonMobil say will benefit the communities and the facilities.

The DEQ also announced on Friday a separate penalty of almost $62,000 against ExxonMobil for a June 14, 2012, release of naptha at its Baton Rouge chemical facility while the larger settlement involved incidents of pollution that have occurred since 2008.

In addition, DEQ and ExxonMobil have agreed to a penalty schedule for any future emissions of pollution. The stipulated penalty agreement outlines specific payments for specific violations, and the payments go up as the time or amount of pollution increases.

“Here’s my incentive to keep my incident minimal,” said Cheryl Nolan, DEQ assistant secretary.

This is the first time this type of stipulated penalty agreement has been done by the state, and both ExxonMobil and DEQ officials agreed it’s going to make things more efficient.

The penalty schedule will speed up the time between a violation and a penalty payment for many different types of violations, Nolan said. Under current procedures, after a pollution release occurs, a series of notices from DEQ and responses from the company must be completed, she said.

Now with the stipulated penalty agreement, it’s pre-arranged what will be paid for each violation which should provide a much shorter delay between the violation and the payment than currently exists, Nolan said. “They know, ‘you do this, this is what you’re going to pay,’ ” she said.

Robert Berg, state regulatory adviser for Louisiana for ExxonMobil, agreed. “It’s very, very efficient,” he said.

The review of incidents will be done on an annual basis so there will be a much quicker time around between the incident and the payment, Berg said. “We’re going to do this while it’s still fresh in everyone’s mind,” he said.

Environmental groups also praised the stipulated penalty agreement as being a big step forward.

“This proposed settlement contains substantial contributions to local community projects, which is good, but the most significant progress is the development of stipulated penalties,” said Marylee Orr, executive director with Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

“With the establishment of stipulated penalties, Louisiana, for the first time ever, has created an objective and transparent system for enforcing environmental regulations,” she said.

The proposed settlement over pollution incidents that occurred from 2008 to this year includes $300,000 in payments to DEQ; just over $1 million in beneficial environmental projects; and $1 million in improvements to the facilities to help provide faster detection of future releases.

The facilities included in the settlement are the ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge, chemical plant in Baton Rouge, the tank farm in Port Allen and a resin finishing plant in Baton Rouge.

The settlement includes violations, both that received enforcement actions and those that didn’t, between 2008 and 2013. These self-reported violations fill about 48 pages of the settlement agreement and range from pollution releases including benzene, propylene and flammable vapors, to water quality issues to a number of flaring instances.

Also included in the settlement is a commitment of $1 million that ExxonMobil will spend to improve spill prevention control and other improvements at its Baton Rouge complex, Nolan said. “My charge to them is how is this not going to happen again,” she said.

ExxonMobil will present DEQ with a plan for improvements for approval with the goal of discovering spill faster, reacting to them faster and thus minimizing the impact, Nolan said. “Why does it take this long to figure out you had a spill?” she said.

Berg, with ExxonMobil, said although there are no specific projects as the company moves forward with putting together a plan for DEQ approval, the goal of the program is clear.

“The goal is rapid detection, rapid mitigation and minimize impact,” he said. “To find and fix problems faster.”

As part of the settlement process, ExxonMobil will publish a public notice soon that will start the clock on a 45-day public comment period. At the same time, the proposed settlement has been sent to the Attorney General’s office for a 90-day review.

The separate $61,912 penalty is for violations that occurred during a June 14, 2012, naptha release at the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge chemical plant. According to a compliance order and notice of potential penalty issued to the facility July 19, a plug at a tank was discovered leaking naphtha, which is a mixture of various hydrocarbons, at 4:30 a.m. June 14.

In this case, the naptha release involved 28,688 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. The DEQ and ExxonMobil decided to enter dispute resolution which gave them up to a year to resolve the issue.