Workers offer an inside look at petrochemical industry’s lack of preparedness for hurricane season

A flare visible from Gonzales during the night of Dec. 20 came from the Motiva refinery in Convent. Photo from the Weekly Citizen

According to refinery reports, storms make up the single largest cause of emissions via refinery accidents in Louisiana. These accidents could be prevented and health and safety could be protected if refineries listened to their employees and neighbors and adopted a few common sense measures.

Members of the United Steelworkers from the state’s refineries — speaking to LABB Program Manager Anna Hrybyk — shared their real-life stories of the chaos at these facilities during hurricanes, when refinery managers wait until the last minute to launch emergency procedures, or just keep the facility operating. Their stories mirror the concerns behind the recommendations in our June 1, 2011, Storms Report.

Plan as if a hurricane will hit your refinery.

I have been employed at the Convent Refinery for 12 years as an operator in the Utilities portion of the refinery. I have been forced to ride out (hurricanes and storms). I can tell you that in my experience there has always been a plan that has been written out. The problem is that the plan is rarely followed and the changes are made on the fly to fit the situation that the company believes we are in at the moment.” Darrell Heltz, USW Chair, Convent Refinery

At Alliance, we have a hurricane policy in place, but it is only followed when it is convenient for ConocoPhillips.” Anthony Corso, USW ConocoPhillips Alliance Refinery, Belle Chasse

For (Hurricane) Hugo, they ran that plant until it shutdown for low gas pressure and our people had to work in it without services, backups or just plain normal things like food, water to flush a commode, air conditioning – it was a mess. They said they had a plan but we never saw them follow it. They should have a plan and safely shut down each facility when a certain mile range (for the eye of the hurricane) is met and it should not be left to the discretion of the companies.” – Jordy Richardson, USW President Local 620, Occidental Chemical Corporation in Geismar

Planned shutdowns minimize risk to workers and residents as well as limit emissions.

Sure, we may slow down some, but shutting down without a trip or a power failure is not in the cards … If you are in Utilities, your unit is not shutting down because the plant needs steam, air and fuel gas to run. So your unit stays up the entire time.” – Darrell Heltz, USW Chair, Convent Refinery

‘Essential personnel’ are not allowed to leave work while our residences are under a Mandatory Evacuation Order by our public officials (even when the order includes our refinery’s location). If our Leadership Team demanded this because of the need to safely shut down our refinery in a timely, orderly manner, we would have no issue with this. But they invoke this ‘iron fist rule’ so they can keep our facility running (making money) for as long as possible before bringing down our units. So, when they do finally commit to shutting down production, it is not timely, nor orderly. In addition, it is difficult for the workers to remain focused on our tasks at hand, while we race against the clock to get our facility into safe mode before the storm approaches. They have no regard for our safety by putting us in this highly stressed situation.” – Anthony Corso, USW ConocoPhillips Alliance Refinery, Belle Chasse

We petitioned for the (Plaquemines) Parish President and Sheriff to force our facility to be in safe mode by the time Mandatory Evaluation Order went into effect at our site. This petition was a direct result of the previous storm, where Alliance began to shut down our units mere hours before evacuation was mandated. … I think the petition consisted of approx. 400 names. … The message (we got in response) was merely that Parish Officials and ConocoPhillips will work ‘hand in hand,’ should a severe storm approach our area. … As weak as this was, we still requested something (in writing) from the Parish President to substantiate this message.  It has been two years, and we haven’t seen anything from Nunguesser.” – Anthony Corso, USW ConocoPhillips Alliance Refinery, Belle Chasse

Refineries as well as the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality claim that if they shut down during a hurricane, it will cause fuel shortages across the country. The state and the refineries use the “tight supply” excuse to avoid shutting down the facility. Keith Bowers, a Technology and Project Development consultant and processing engineer, who has worked in the refining industry for more than 20 years, does not buy that excuse:

There is usually over 15 days of product supply readily available in storage tanks in ‘the system.’ Operating rates are around 85% U.S.-wide, so even if 15% of the entire U.S. capability was lost (everything between Mobile and Lake Charles was knocked out), the rest could ramp up – and remember, we are importing over 30% of our gasoline consumption these days. It is really a matter of cash flow for the refineries. Typical profit margins are $7-$15/barrel refined. Using $10/barrel, that is $4 million a day in profits. A five-day outage reduces cash flow $20 million a day!!! No one likes to interrupt the cash flow. ‘Damage to the environment’ is a non-cash cost, and usually not any issue anyway and lost in the noise of a big storm damage.”

Increase capability to handle rainfall.

In Convent, a hard rain will back the sewers up so bad that the water is knee-high for hours. There has been a big pond dug in the last several years to increase the capacity of rain water but the pond does little if the water can’t get to it. The drains to the pond are not adequate. The water backs up and holds for hours. The operators are made to go out in this to make Line ups and adjustments.” – Darrell Heltz, USW Chair, Convent Refinery

And some final comments on why they decided to speak out:

“I am hopeful that this will shine a light on what really goes on inside these facilities. It isn’t all bad, but the almighty dollar is the driver and until these companies truly understand that you can make a ton of money and do it in a manner that is safe for the worker, the community, and the environment, we will continue to have these types of issues surface.– Darrell Heltz, USW Chair, Convent Refinery

Thanks guys!

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