A closer look at recent refinery settlements in Louisiana

Placid Refining in Port Allen reached a settlement last week with the state of Louisiana on violations dating back to 2004. Placid Refining will pay the state $675,000 in fines, implement emissions reduction technology and devote $225,000 toward a beneficial environmental project (specifically, helping the West Baton Rouge Parish Council offset the cost of a Mobile Command Center for emergency response).

But, as Bloomberg Businessweek points out, the settlement allows Placid Refining to pay fines for violations while still denying that the facility actually violated any laws or regulations — which will help shield Placid from any future citizen suits on past alleged violations. (For example, a particularly bad month in 2005 that sent more than 100,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide into nearby communities.) Beautiful, ain’t it?

You may remember the EPA finalized a similar settlement with Murphy Oil in St. Bernard Parish in February. The beneficial environmental projects there included setting up air monitors, building a fence around ruins of the Villere Plantation and a bunch of community meetings down the pipeline.

And in January, the LDEQ finalized a settlement with Calumet Lubricants over its three facilities near Shreveport. LABB joined Residents for Air Neutralization in Shreveport in issuing a press release stating disappointment at the lack of community involvement in the process. And months later, there was still bad blood between Calumet and its neighbors over the hastily reached agreement.

So, why this big rash of settlements with state refineries? LDEQ claims these are meant to “consolidate previous environmental violations” as part of its Small Refinery Initiative, which is piggybacking on a bigger EPA initiative (as noted, the Placid and Calumet settlements fell under LDEQ, the Murphy Oil violations were settled with the EPA).

Since 2000, the EPA’s national Petroleum Refinery Initiative has been actively settling out of court with companies, amounting to 28 settlements focusing on 105 refineries in 32 states and territories that are mandated to perform all sorts of environmental projects. The price tag so far for those projects: About $75 million. Other big dollar amounts include $6 billion in emissions reduction technology and $80 million in civil penalties.

While the improvements are a big step toward reducing pollution and the harmful effects on residents near these facilities, it’s the beneficial environmental projects (known as BEPs) where community input and concerns often go unheard, as seen with Calumet in Shreveport.

The hardest part is getting community input during the small window of a public comment period, mainly because the avenues officials use to alert residents about the process are rarely geared toward the poorer, minority communities that are so often in the shadow of industry. Public hearings and listening sessions are usually held during weekdays when residents are at work. So it’s often through the actions of groups like LABB and our partners at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (which is helping RAN in Shreveport submit comments on the Calumet settlement), that residents are even aware of their ability to speak up.

But even then, the refineries ultimately have to agree to perform the BEPs, and industry loves to spend quality time in court. Take a look at the EPA settlement with BP Amoco in 2001 — which was amended six times in the eight years that followed.

Sometimes, though, you take what you can get. And when it comes to battling Big Oil, even expedited settlements can mean something positive in the end. As the EPA states:

“These settlements … on full implementation will result in annual emissions reductions on more than 92,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and more than 255,000 tons of sulfur dioxide.”

This entry was posted in Oil Refineries, Public Health. Bookmark the permalink.

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