On Tuesday, Aug. 16, after the workday was over, a small group of community members sat in a meeting room of Murphy Oil USA’s office building in Chalmette, just a few blocks away from the tank farms and smoke stacks of the company’s Meraux refinery.
Several months ago, Murphy Oil went into a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency (read more on that here) that, among other things, required monthly community meetings to update residents on equipment upgrades, emissions data and measures to reduce pollution that are required as part of the agreement.
If that already sounds boring to you, I wouldn’t disagree. As part of my job at LABB, I’ve had to gain some basic knowledge about refinery terminology – things like reportable quantities, fugitive emissions, root cause analysis and flare gas recovery systems. But I still have trouble with things like the catalytic cracking unit, scrubbers or sour water strippers. I can only imagine how the average resident feels about such language.
The meetings are hosted and facilitated by Murphy Oil personnel, meaning that you’d have to brush up on your knowledge of permit limits for sulfur dioxide, benzene, toluene and others (and their respective abbreviations) to understand much of the presentation. Add to that the monotonous tone of the proceedings and you’d be forgiven for confusing the slide on annual SO2 flared figures from the slide about NOx targets of 20 ppm and 7-day averages of 55 ppm.
And as one community member noted after the meeting, that’s kind of the point. The first community meeting after the settlement saw a large attendance, and it’s decreased since then. Murphy Oil is trying to “keep it boring,” the community member said, so that residents will lose interest. This was clear as refinery representatives zipped through slides quickly, though they did stop to answer questions and provided a brief comment period at the end. Just don’t ask to have a copy of the presentation afterward, because that’s not part of the settlement agreement. “But you can take notes,” a refinery representative told me.
What was meant, at least in the settlement, as an attempt at transparency and a dialogue between the refinery and nearby residents appears crafted to slowly diminish until the refinery can say “We tried, but no one showed up.”
On the plus side, the meeting did offer some information about a new air monitoring system that was recently installed to the northwest of Murphy Oil. Residents can see hourly readings for hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter from the monitor at venturadrivemonitor.com.
As a guide: the EPA sets health limits for exposure to certain chemicals. Sulfur dioxide (measured in the monitor data as parts per million) should not exceed a 24-hour average of 0.14 ppm. For particulate matter-10, the limit is 150 micrograms per cubic meter (micrograms/m3) for a 24-hour average. Louisiana currently has no standard limit for hydrogen sulfide, though other states do because of the chronic human health risk. Occupational Health & Safety explains the health effects associated with various levels of exposure to hydrogen sulfide.
Kudos go to Concerned Citizens Around Murphy, the grassroots community group that’s been heavily involved in the settlement process and the subsequent meetings — they’ve also done their part to publicize the meetings in local media. They are the ones who call the refinery, the EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality whenever there’s an odor or chemicals floating down the canal between their homes and the refinery. They are the ones whose advocating for reduced emissions and improvements to the community led to the settlement. They are on the front lines when accidents happen at Murphy, and the refinery would do right to keep them engaged.
In our work at LABB, we recognize the challenge of understanding confusing refinery data that’s faced by fenceline neighbors who often have no connections to the facility. They know they don’t want pollution in their neighborhood, and they know the facilities aren’t always doing what they are supposed to, but they don’t have the training or the information to combat this. That’s why LABB trains residents to take their own air samples and understand the results. We are constantly in communities sharing refinery accident data in ways they can understand.
And refineries like Murphy Oil should be doing the same if they want to be considered a good neighbor.