By Andy Zellinger, Research Analyst
Updates on Valero Meraux’s October oil spray
At 2 PM on Friday, October 25th Valero Refinery in Meraux, LA reported a large discharge of crude oil from a rupture in a crude unit to the National Response Center. This crude unit in the refinery had a series of small explosions and a fire in the summer of 2012. This pattern of accidents not only poses threats to families’ health, but also demonstrates Valero’s inability to operate a refinery safely. Valero initially reported “a small amount of oil” from a plug on the pipeline that crosses the highway caused the closure. Then, they said a malfunctioning tank was the source; finally they settled on a rupture in the crude units. Valero has submitted an initial written notification report, subsequently a follow-up notification report, and final follow-up notification to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality which contains more conclusive details now that the investigation is complete.
[Photo credit: WDSU.com]
The rupture spilled an estimated 200 barrels – or 8,400 gallons – of crude oil onto the Mississippi River, drivers on St. Bernard Highway, as well as cars and homes on the east bank plus the west bank of the river in Belle Chasse. The sheen in the Mississippi was approximately 400 square feet – the size of a two car garage. Valero deployed absorbent boom to contain the sheen, but it had largely dissipated.
The rupture occurred during maintenance activities; the Louisiana Bucket Brigade strongly advocates maintenance, but it must be performed cautiously. When refiners cut corners to minimize production loss, disastrous accidents can happen. The cause of this rupture was an improperly measured maintenance device – but the third party contractor working on it was not given the proper protocol by his employer or Valero personnel – therefore this accident was preventable.
After the spill, Valero mobilized contractors to clean up East St. Bernard Highway and the barge moored at their dock. The Highway opened about 4.5 hours later, and the barge was able to sail the following day. Valero offered car washes to those affected. Residents have complained the car wash was inadequate, and the business that provided that service admitted they didn’t know how to properly clean an oiled vehicle. Valero may have to consider pending legal action from residents whose vehicles have damaged body paint.
Residents were concerned for both their oiled properties, and also for their personal health. According to their spokeswoman, the LDEQ air monitoring team was unable to detect the presence of any hazardous chemicals, but Valero personnel conducted their own air monitoring which did show detectable quantities of the cancer-causing pollutant benzene. According to their final report, Valero detected a peak value of 0.15 ppm at the fenceline along St. Bernard Highway. This is a dangerous concentration of benzene for both workers and residents. The NIOSH recommended workplace exposure limit for benzene is set at 0.10 ppm – therefore workers lacking respirators throughout the entire spill were exposed to harmful levels of benzene. Based on laboratory analysis of the spilled oil the total benzene released by this event was 70.7 lbs; exceeding the state’s legal threshold for accidental emissions of benzene.
The following business day, Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s Accident Response Team (ART) deployed to the Meraux, Louisiana to conduct health surveys that document the impacts on the local community. The results of our health surveys indicate this accident harmed the fenceline community’s public health. Residents reported they were upset that the refinery did not use alarms or sirens. After health surveys were conducted it appears very likely that some residents experienced symptoms of acute benzene poisoning. Of the 40 residents surveyed:
35% reported mental health effects
7.5% experienced fear
7.5% experienced anxiety
12.5% reported headaches
7.5% reported respiratory irritation
2.5% reported eye irritation
Issues with delayed maintenance on sulfur control technologies at Valero Refining – Meraux
Valero Energy Corp’s Meraux, Louisiana refinery had a series of recent problems with properly maintaining units. Refining crude petroleum oil and gas with higher levels of sulfur – referred to as “sour crude” – yields higher levels of sulfur byproducts that require sour water strippers to limit the sulfur content of end products including gasoline to meet purity standards. Once the sulfur has been scrubbed out of oil, the facility attempts to recover as much as possible in the Sulfur Recovery Units in order to limit flaring of harmful pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide and to profit from selling the sulfur as feedstock to other plants. Valero Meraux processes between 50 percent and 80 percent medium-sour crude – which yields high amounts of sulfur. Considering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently decreed all of St. Bernard Parish is a designated “nonattainment” area for violations of the 2010 SO2 National Ambient Air Quality Standard, it seems obvious to recommend that Valero invest more time and money into improving sulfur control technologies. Valero Meraux is permitted for larger levels of sulfur dioxide emissions, but has a smaller refining capacity than Valero St. Charles. Valero’s Meraux plant has 125,000-135,000 barrels per day capacity and is permitted to release 753 tons per year SO2, whereas the St. Charles facility has 270,000 barrel per day capacity emitting only 238 tons per year sulfur dioxide. Seeing how Valero Energy operates other refineries along the Gulf Coast with better control technology that results in lower emissions, it is clear that there is room for improvement in Meraux. Since the Nonattainment designation there has been recent sulfur dioxide spikes in violation of the federal limit recorded by air monitoring data from St. Bernard Parish.
The Sulfur Recovery Unit at Valero may have been malfunctioning for the past 5 years. Valero’s sulfur dioxide emissions have been decreasing since 2008; however testing indicated increasing efficiency of the Sulfur Recovery Units has directly led to permit exceedances for other pollutants. Increased CO and NOx emissions pose a serious threat to public health for St. Bernard residents. Valero filed this letter to the LDEQ; on October 18, 2013 requesting permit variances for months rather than immediately fixing the issues. Valero submitted this variance request in response to the routine CO and NOx stack testing conducted every 5 years as required by the EPA. While it is impossible to determine when the No. 2 SRU incinerator began malfunctioning, it is certain that it occurred sometime between the April 2008 and August 2013 stack tests. If stack testing were required more frequently the harmful emissions could have been avoided.
The Meraux facility evidently has issues with forgone or delayed maintenance resulting in accidental emissions. The issues associated with Valero’s Sulfur Recovery Unit are part of a larger emissions problem in St. Bernard Parish. The high levels of sulfur dioxide emitted from refineries and other petrochemical production facilities in St. Bernard Parish led to the air quality failing federal health standards. Valero Meraux needs to invest in the maintenance of control equipment. It will not suffice for refineries to invest in turnarounds which are delayed or abbreviated; cutting corners to save time and money. Investments in better control technologies and proper maintenance of such units are essential to protecting public health. Once these investments are made there needs to be more frequent emissions testing in order to keep units properly operating which are intended to reduce the impact on neighboring communities.