EJ Corps Week Four: Digging deep into refinery accident reports

ExxonMobil is seen from a neighborhood of empty lots in the Istrouma area of North Baton Rouge. Photo by Monique Verdin

This post summarizes week four of Akasa Thomas’ Environmental Justice Corps fellowship at LABB. Much of Akasa’s focus at LABB is on public health, specifically in the Baton Rouge community of Istrouma next to ExxonMobil, the second largest refinery in the country.

This is my fourth week working with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and I am enjoying every bit of it. Last week we were visited by WWL-TV reporter Maya Rodriguez, who gave us insights on how to better inform the media on environmental issues. The idea is that environmental justice stories should continually engage the public, and not just be hot topic news that quickly disappears.

In addition, I have been working on analyzing accidents at refineries and chemical plants along the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. While conducting careful analysis of accidents that have taken place at these facilities, I can’t understand why these multi-billion-dollar companies don’t spend money on maintaining equipment. Instead, they let hazardous materials sit in these tanks that have been there since the facility opened. Nonetheless they continue to use faulty instruments and equipment with missing valves, vacuums, etc. I think updating the equipment would decrease the number of accidents that take place and cause less harm to the communities.

Below is one of the chemicals emitted during accidents that I have come across time and time again while working on this data:

Phthalic anhydride:
Short term health effects: lung irritation, shortness of breath and/or chronic health effects
Long term health effects: Heavy concentration in the tissues and organs

A lot of accidents take place because of carelessness, and I find that a lot of ExxonMobil’s accidents leak chemicals for days and days. For example, I came across an accident that began on July 12, 2010 and did not cease until July 25 that consisted of piping and tubing problems where 225,860 pounds of hexane was released to the air. On March 5, 2010, an instrument failure released hydrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide.

I began to wonder: Is it the faulty equipment or could it be because this facility does not have enough manpower to keep operations running smoothly and chemicals from escaping?

When reading these reports, they tend to lack a clear visual of what happened. In addition, I find that the excuses these facilities give to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality rarely get acted upon. It’s almost like the people at LDEQ are in bed with the facilities and are not ensuring the best interest of the community and the environment!

On that note, I think LDEQ should require these facilities to give a more thorough explanation for theses accidents instead of the bits and pieces seen in their reports. At least more enforcement would help in tracking how often or to what degree these accidents occur — but that may sound too much like the right thing to do.

Being an intern at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has really opened my eyes to see the power industry has in Louisiana. It is sad that these refinery communities are facing health problems and are slowly falling apart, yet the state has not fought for them to figure out what is going on. I understand state leaders may not feel as though it affects them, but it affects us all. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there!

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