Exxon lies to officials about size of benzene spill – community and workers sick from vapors

By Anna Hrybyk, LABB Program Manager

June 19, 2012

Lisa Jackson

Administrator

Environmental Protection Agency

Mail Code 1101A

Ariel Rios Building

1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20460

Dear Administrator Jackson:

I am writing to you today to alert you about an incident resulting in a major benzene release at the ExxonMobil Refinery in Baton Rouge. This letter is long; the length is necessary to provide details to compel an investigation. We ask that you reply by Thursday, July 19th.

We first noticed the problem in the Istrouma and Standard Heights neighborhoods on Thursday, June 14th. There were terrible odors that smelled like VOCs. The workers in the plant alerted us on Saturday, June 16th that the problem had gotten worse. This letter is a formal request for an investigation to determine the following:

1.     The cause of the accident

2.     The impact on workers and the community

3.     The adequacy of the response by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and Region VI of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The information that follows provides details of the accident. I lead with information about the LDEQ and EPA response since these agencies should be our first line of defense.

LDEQ and EPA Response

We wrote to Cheryl Nolan, Assistant Secretary of LDEQ’s Office of Compliance and to Esteban Herrera, EPA Compliance Assurance and Enforcement Division Section Chief on Friday, June 15th.

Ms. Nolan responded by saying that the benzene release was less than reportable quantities and that everything was under control by Thursday morning. However, we had firsthand information that the release was not under control but was in fact ongoing. Two Region VI EPA EJ officials from the regions were even with us Thursday afternoon when we smelled it. Despite the information regarding ongoing odors and problems in the neighborhood, our concerns on Friday afternoon were dismissed by both LDEQ and EPA.

In an email to the LDEQ on which we were cc’d, EPA’s Mr. Herrera supported the response by LDEQ.  “As always you guys are on top of it and respond to these types of releases within the time lines of LDEQ procedures.” He wrote those words even as a serious situation was growing worse.

Please recall that in December of 2012 the Inspector General report on Region VI EPA noted that the LDEQ has a “culture of protecting industry.”

The timeline of the incident, the impacts and the state and EPA response can be seen in the e-mails below. I wrote these e –mails in my role as the Louisiana Bucket Brigade Program Manager trying to compel both emergency response and oversight.

First communication to EPA and LDEQ about the problem

From: Anna Hrybyk [anna@labucketbrigade.org]
Sent: Friday, 06/15/2012 11:04 AM EST
To: Esteban Herrera
Cc: Israel Anderson; Charlotte Runnels; “cheryl.nolan” <Cheryl.Nolan@la.gov>; Anne Rolfes <anne@labucketbrigade.org>
Subject: Benzene release at ExxonMobil Chemical Baton Rouge

I just wanted to alert you to self reports of a Naphtha/Benzene leak above RQ from Exxon Mobil Baton Rouge at 5am yesterday Thursday June 14th, 2012.  See the NRC and Reuters reports below:

http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/078091e0-0a5c-3b96-993d-1bf276e438ed#c=LABB
http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/14/us-pipeline-operations-exxon-idUSBRE85D13V20120614

Also FYI the refinery reported releasing butane from a pipeline the day before on Wednesday June 13th.  http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/b02d8a30-27ef-3e12-8298-b7c82bbb6f25#c=LABB
Also 2 reports to our map regarding a VOC smell and health effects at two different locations and times near the ExxonMobil complex.
http://www.oilspill.labucketbrigade.org/reports/view/6547
http://www.oilspill.labucketbrigade.org/reports/view/6548

I am copying Israel Anderson and Charlotte Runnels because they were with community members in Standard Heights and Istrouma yesterday and can verify the strong VOC smell.

I look forward to hearing from you on this.

Response from LDEQ Cheryl Nolan

From: Cheryl Nolan [Cheryl.Nolan@LA.GOV]
Sent: 06/15/2012 02:16 PM EST
To: Esteban Herrera; Anna Hrybyk <anna@labucketbrigade.org>
Cc: Israel Anderson; Charlotte Runnels; Anne Rolfes <anne@labucketbrigade.org>; Peggy Hatch <Peggy.Hatch@LA.GOV>
Subject: RE: Benzene release at ExxonMobil Chemical Baton Rouge

Our ER staff responded to the benzene incident yesterday morning.  The release was secured around 5 am. The area was then washed down and the water collected and routed to the wastewater treatment system.  Perimeter air monitoring did not indicate levels of concern. State Police was also onsite.

Although we do not have final estimate, the initial report indicated the estimated quantity was 10 lbs (the RQ for benzene).

Thanks

Cheryl Sonnier Nolan

Assistant Secretary

Office of Environmental Compliance

Louisiana Department of Environmental Compliance

(225)219-3710

cheryl.nolan@la.gov

Response from Esteban Herrera

 

Fri, Jun 15, 2012 at 2:59 PM, Esteban Herrera <Herrera.Esteban@epamail.epa.gov> wrote:

Cheryl,
As always you guys are on top of it and respond to these types of releases within the time lines of LDEQ procedures. Thank you

Anna,

We trust that our state partners as a delegated program review these type of releases to verify compliance. History has shown that LDEQ does a great job of determining compliance when these releases occur.  I did want to forward this information to my bz point of contact not necessarily to verify compliance with that specific release, but to provide additional information to help us prioritize who we need to inspect as part of our EPA regional initiative for bz.

Thanks again for the information!!
Sent by EPA Wireless Email Services

 

Second communication after call from workers at the refinery

 

Re:  Benzene release at ExxonMobil Baton Rouge

Saturday, June 16, 2012 2:17pm

From:  Anna Hrybyk

To: Esteban Herrera <Herrera.Esteban@epamail.epa.gov>, Cheryl Nolan <Cheryl.Nolan@la.gov>, Peggy Hatch <Peggy.Hatch@la.gov>, giles-aa.cynthia@epa.gov, stanislaus.mathy@epa.gov, Eric Schaeffer <eschaeffer@environmentalintegrity.org>, “Hoyle, Bill” <bill.hoyle@csb.gov>, stuckey.troy@epa.gov,  deleon.minerva@epa.gov, folse.dorinda@dol.gov,  Long.Lisa@dol.gov, “Berkowitz, Deborah – OSHA” <Berkowitz.Deborah@dol.gov>, “Buchanan, Art – OSHA” <Buchanan.Art@dol.gov>,
“Marshall, Mike – OSHA” <Marshall.Mike@dol.gov>, “Lay, Jim – OSHA” <Lay.Jim@dol.gov>,”Beevers, Gary” <gbeevers@usw.org>, Trina Ceasor <trinaceasor@att.net>, “Thomas, Sonyja R.” <srthomas@agcenter.lsu.edu>,
ronlovely29@yahoo.com, “Davis, Quincy LCDR” <Quincy.L.Davis@uscg.mil>, “Bowen, Russ CDR” <Gary.R.Bowen@uscg.mil>, charles.backstrom@la.gov

Dear Enforcement Officials:

I am writing to follow up with you all regarding an ongoing Benzene leak at the ExxonMobil complex in Baton Rouge reported at 5am on Thursday June 14.  I have information from workers inside the plant that the meter people began smelling and reporting odors on Wednesday June 13 and that workers are currently still smelling it all over the plant today Saturday June 16.

400 workers are currently being monitored for benzene exposure.  Symptoms reported include severe headaches.  There have been reports of VOC like odors in the community as well, on both the south side in Standard Heights (2:30pm Thursday) and the east side in Istrouma (5:30pm Thursday).  Symptoms reported also include severe headaches.  No bucket samples have been taken as of now because the weather conditions have not been favorable.

Workers report that approximately 700 barrels of naphtha have been released into the sewer system of the plant.  The Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) has been evacuated and they are operating from an offsite unit.  The naphtha leaking into the trunk line that runs the length of the entire plant, connecting the tank on the Northeast side to the WWTP on the Southwest end close to the River.  This trunk line includes the 13-14 separator tank (open to the atmosphere) on the west side of the tank close to the power plant.

The entire sewer line has vents that are allowing benzene vapors from the naphtha to enter into the air.  Workers are CURRENTLY applying firefighting foam to suppress the vapors and have shifts scheduled to do this through tomorrow.

Cheryl Nolan of LDEQ reported on Friday June 15 that Exxon has estimated that the total benzene release was only 10 pounds (the RQ for Benzene).  Workers estimate that the concentration of benzene in naphtha is 50%.

50% of 700 barrels = 350 barrels of benzene have leaked into the sewer system at the ExxonMobil refinery and is still producing vapors into the air exposing workers and community members as we speak.

My request is to all enforcement officials is to get to the scene immediately with SUMMA canisters.  Windy conditions in the area may dilute your samples on the perimeter so I ask that you enter the refinery and check their monitors and speak with workers closer to the sources – the tank, the 13-14 separator, the entire trunk line and the WWTP.

I look forward to hearing from you on this.  As I investigate further, I will keep you updated as well.

Anna

Third communication

Saturday, June 16, 2012 9:59pm

From: Anna Hrybyk

To: Esteban Herrera <Herrera.Esteban@epamail.epa.gov>, Cheryl Nolan <Cheryl.Nolan@la.gov>, Peggy Hatch <Peggy.Hatch@la.gov>, giles-aa.cynthia@epa.gov, stanislaus.mathy@epa.gov, Eric Schaeffer <eschaeffer@environmentalintegrity.org>, “Hoyle, Bill” <bill.hoyle@csb.gov>, stuckey.troy@epa.gov,  deleon.minerva@epa.gov, folse.dorinda@dol.gov,  Long.Lisa@dol.gov, “Berkowitz, Deborah – OSHA” <Berkowitz.Deborah@dol.gov>, “Buchanan, Art – OSHA” <Buchanan.Art@dol.gov>,
“Marshall, Mike – OSHA” <Marshall.Mike@dol.gov>, “Lay, Jim – OSHA” <Lay.Jim@dol.gov>,”Beevers, Gary” <gbeevers@usw.org>, Trina Ceasor <trinaceasor@att.net>, “Thomas, Sonyja R.” <srthomas@agcenter.lsu.edu>,
ronlovely29@yahoo.com, “Davis, Quincy LCDR” <Quincy.L.Davis@uscg.mil>, “Bowen, Russ CDR” <Gary.R.Bowen@uscg.mil>, charles.backstrom@la.gov

Dear All:

In follow up to my last email, I have learned more information from workers inside the plant:

1.  400 workers were being monitored for benzene exposure on Thursday June 14.  There were even more workers exposed on Friday June 15, so that number is likely greater.

2.  The leak may not be ongoing but it is definitely not contained because it is in the entire sewer system of the plant.  It is likely due to a leaking bleeder valve.

3.  The source of the leak originates at Tank 801 off of Avenue E connecting the Refinery to the Chemical plant after you cross Sulfates Road.

4.  Neighbors to the south of the plant in Standard Heights have reported a burning oil smell on Thursday and Friday.  Workers have told me this is probably the raffinate content of the naphtha.

I look forward to hearing your follow up to this report.

END OF E-MAIL

After more discussion with workers inside the plant, I learned that they were concerned that because the WWTP was not in service any longer, the naphtha in the trunk line was being flushed into the Mississippi River.  I called the National Response Center to alert the US Coast Guard.

 

Report Details
NRC Report ID: 1014812
Incident Time: 2012-06-16 13:30:00
Nearest City: Baton Rouge, LA
Location: 4045 SCENIC HWY
Incident Type: STORAGE TANK
Material: BENZENE
Medium Affected: WATER
Suspected Responsible Party: EXXON MOBIL
SkyTruth Analysis
Lat/Long: 30.476852, -91.168570 (Approximated from street_address)
Report Description
CALLER IS REPORTING A VALVE ON A TANK INSIDE THE FACILITY HAS A LEAK OF NAPHTHA AND IT IS NOT CONTAINED. THE NAPHTHA IS LEAKING INTO A TRUNK LINE THAT COULD ALLOW THE MATERIAL TO ENTER THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER. THIS LEAK IS ALSO RELEASING BENZENE INTO THE AIR. THE BENZENE IN THE AIR IS AFFECTING THE LOCAL AREA.

I placed a second call at about 3:40 pm. Knowing that the LDEQ “hotline” is not staffed on weekends, I called the Louisiana State Police Hazmat Hotline to report the benzene release and requested that LDEQ get to the scene immediately.  I received a return phone call shortly thereafter from the LDEQ Emergency Responder on duty, Terry Dedon. He explained to me that he was busy attending his grandmother’s 91st birthday party.  I explained to him that benzene was very toxic and that he needed to go into the refinery with an air monitor as soon as possible.  He called me back in ½ an hour and explained that he was en route to the refinery with Peter Ricca, another LDEQ emergency responder (the DEQ inspection report states that the inspection took place around 9 pm, so there is some confusion regarding the time).  I then called and texted Mr. Dedo twice to make sure he inspected Tank 801, the 13-14 separater and the vents along the trunk line.

At around 9:00 pm on Saturday June 16, 2012, LDEQ Emergency Responder Peter Ricca conducted an inspection of the Exxon refinery.  According to a phone conversation with Mr. Ricca on Monday June 18, 2012 the following details of the inspection were gleaned:

1.  LDEQ Emergency Responders walked through the area of the naphtha spill conducting air monitoring using  “a MSA Sirius Multi-gas Detector (there is no model number).  This unit is a combination 10.6eV photoionization detector (PID) configured with four additional sensors.  These sensors include: Hydrogen Sulfide 0-200 ppm range read in 1 ppm increments; Carbon Monoxide 5-500 ppm range read in 5 ppm increments; Oxygen 0-25% of volume read in 0.1% increments and Volatile Organic Compounds with a 0-2000 ppm range read in 1 ppm increments.”  LDEQ did NOT take any samples along the vents of the trunk line even though I specified this in the emails above.  Exxon management told LDEQ that the trunk line was inaccessible.

2.  LDEQ Emergency Responders took air samples at Tank 801, at the 13-14 separater and outside the fenceline at the South Gate and outside the fence of Tank 801 on Scenic Highway.

3.  LDEQ found elevated levels of 2ppm total VOC outside the fenceline at the South Gate There is a community called Standard Heights of about 60 homes across from Exxon’s South Gate.  Neighbors in Standard Heights have been reporting gasoline and burnt oil smells on Thursday, June 14, 2012 and Friday June 15, 2012 in their neighborhood leading to headaches and nausea.  One family at 2745 Sorrell has reported that after the bad smell on Thursday their baby became ill vomiting white fluid and they were taking the baby to the hospital on Monday June 18, 2012.

3.  LDEQ found elevated levels of 100 ppm total VOC in the area surrounding the 13-14 separater.  LDEQ did not feel that this level presented any danger to the public despite being so elevated because the 13-14 separater was far from the fenceline of the facility.

4.  Exxon told LDEQ that 1,361 pounds of naphtha leaked into the sewer system of the refinery.

5.  Exxon told LDEQ that 300-400 workers were being monitored for benzene exposure.

On Monday June 18, 2012 I received a call from Wes McQuiddy, EPA Region VI Chief of Emergency Readiness who was on his way to Baton Rouge later that evening to discuss with Exxon, LDEQ on how notifications to EPA and the community could have been improved and the how EPA could improve its response to the benzene release.  I will be meeting him today Tuesday June 19, 2012 in Standard Heights and accompany him as he discusses the response with community members.

This response from the region is happening only because we elevated the problem and harangued the LDEQ. Had we not made noise, had a worker not taken the brave step of calling us, the incident would have ended with EPA’s laudatory e-mail to LDEQ on Friday afternoon. Meanwhile workers and potentially neighbors were exposed to benzene.  Our confidence in the region is eroding and we desperately need federal involvement.

Thank you for your time and attention.  We hope that in the future we can be seen as partners by LDEQ and EPA Region VI rather than as nags to be brushed aside with e-mails using the tired reportable quantities excuse.

Sincerely,

Anna Hrybyk, Program Manager

CC: Cynthia Giles, EPA Assistant Administrator of Compliance and Enforcement

Arthur Elkins, EPA Inspector General

Jim Letten, US District Attorney

Mathy Stanislaus, EPA Assistant Administrator of Emergency Response

Dr. David Michaels, OSHA Assistant Secretary

Rafael Moure Eraso, US Chemical Safety Board Chairperson

Christopher J Portier, ATSDR Director

Gary Beevers, United Steelworkers International President

Sam Coleman, EPA Region VI Acting Administrator

Peggy Hatch, LDEQ Secretary

Captain Peter Gautier, US Coast Guard Sector Commander

Kevin Davis, Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Director

Eric Schaeffer, Environmental Integrity Project

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4 Responses to Exxon lies to officials about size of benzene spill – community and workers sick from vapors

  1. Concerned Supporter says:

    Ann,

    I appreciate that you are trying to make a point.

    My concern is that your organization continually makes inflammatory statements with little-to-no understanding of the actual situation. Playing a game of “he said she said” with regulatory agencies and labor unions does not constitute journalism… Or even due diligence.

    I am disappointed, because LBB has the potential to be a force for good. Instead, it seems that you are rationalizing that telling half-truths and holding misleading publicity stunts is okay, as long as you can poke big oil in the eye.

    Why do i make these statements? I spoke with the same regulatory agencies that you did. Exxon did not lie about the size if the Benzene leak. They quickly reported the leak was in excess of the required reportable quantity, and then spent time to accurately calculate the actual amount. In addition, no one was exposed to Benzene.

    I am bothered, because this is still a story about envirnmental risks. You don’t have to sensationalize a story to make your point. You lessen your credibility when you misinform people.

    I sincerely hope that the LBB begins to live up to their potential.

    • Thanks so much for your comments. We appreciate your interest in engaging despite our different points of view.

      Sometimes these situations are confusing. This one isn’t. The facts are very clear. Even the LDEQ (see Baton Rouge Advocate article) said that Exxon did not accurately report the accident when it first happened. They said it was less than ten pounds when it was far greater. Now it’s up to 28,000 pounds! This isn’t our opinion. It’s what actually happened.

  2. bonny says:

    what should we do?
    who can i call/write letters to?

    • Bonny,

      Thank you for your concern regarding this issue. First off, if you live in Louisiana, please contact your local legislator. You can also make reports to our iWitness Pollution Map by calling/texting what you see/smell to (504) 27 27 OIL. You can also report anything directly on our website at http://www.oilspill.labucketbrigade.org/. You may also report to the Louisiana HazMat Police at 877-925-6595. This is a good place to report because they will automatically alert any other authorities that should be aware. To report an odor to the EPA, please call 1-866-448-5816.

      We have a direct action campaign where we are asking community members to write letters to Steven Blum, plant manager of the ExxonMobil Plant in Baton Rouge. Same plant that leaked the pollution referred to in Mry. Hrybyk’s blog. We’ve created a shared google doc where anyone can write a letter and it will go into our stock pile of over 3000 letters gathered, that we are attempting to deliver directly to Mr. Blum, so he may realize that they actually do have an accident problem, and citizens are not okay with it. You can write your letter here: https://docs.google.com/a/labucketbrigade.org/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Ahodo7W7xfJ4dDBJYzc1UlRkRWZrellJRUdlUnZfNUE#gid=0.

      Thank you again for your interest and concern, and please let us know if you have any other questions or comments.

      In partnership,
      Louisiana Bucket Brigade

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