By Anna Hrybyk, LABB Program Manager
July 24, 2012
A Citizens’ Arrest of ExxonMobil Baton Rouge[i]
I am writing to update you on the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Benzene incident of June 14th.
At 5am on the morning of June 14th, Exxon reported 10 pounds of Benzene leaked from Tank 801, but that the spill was contained. At 9am on June 14th, LDEQ drove around the plant monitoring for benzene but detected nothing. By 2:30pm, I was in the neighborhood on the south side and the east side of the plant visiting neighbors with two EPA Environmental Justice officials. We all smelled burning oil and I got a severe headache. I woke up really mad the next morning and emailed the LDEQ and EPA Region VI stating that I did not think the spill was contained and that I was receiving reports from neighbors as well. The response was what we usually get from regulators when we are trying to alert them about a chemical emergency – “the release was only 10 pounds, the reportable quantity, and our monitors did not pick up anything.”
By Saturday, I received word from workers inside the plant that the release was not 10 pounds but 700 barrels of naphtha, a strain of crude oil with 51% concentration Benzene. It had entered the entire sewer line of the plant. Four hundred workers were being monitored for benzene exposure. I contacted LDEQ, OSHA, the Chemical Safety Board and EPA Headquarters. Exxon told LDEQ on Saturday night that the release was really 1,364 pounds of Benzene. By Monday, after EPA had flown in, Exxon had revised its estimate to over 28,688 pounds of Benzene, 10,882 pounds of Toluene, 1,100 pounds of Cyclohexane, 1,564 pounds of Hexane and 12,605 pounds of additional Volatile Organic Compounds.
No one had notified the community. No evacuations were conducted. Air monitoring was only conducted briefly on Thursday morning and Saturday night. Meanwhile many residents around the plant have reported severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, and burning eyes on the days surrounding this accident. These are all symptoms of benzene exposure and also what the workers were being monitored for. Who monitors the neighbors for exposure when this stuff gets beyond Exxon’s “magic fence?”
As was to be expected, neighbors were upset. They began to organize and formed a community association called the Standard Heights Community Association. They elected a president and a secretary and outlined their short term and long term goals.
- To have the truth about the ExxonMobil Benzene spill on June 14th
- To hold ExxonMobil accountable for its neglect
- To have a dependable alert system that notifies residents when danger is present and how to protect themselves during the time of an accident
- To have a proper emergency evacuation plan and shelter provisions
- To have the homes in the Standard Heights community tested for toxic chemicals
- Have ExxonMobil Corporation to physically come and speak to residents about the handling of products used on a daily basis concerning the health of residents around the refinery.
- Providing air safety devices to each resident.
- Provide a reliable means to evacuate residents in case of an emergency.
- To give every homeowner the opportunity to either move or stay within Standard Heights.
- To plant more trees instead of flowerbeds, being that trees help with the purification of the air quality.
On Wednesday July 11, 2012 almost one month after the Benzene release, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and our Shreveport based partner, Residents for Air Neutralization, were a featured grantee at the Council for Environmental Cooperation’s Environmental Fair. We had a chance to discuss our work with the three environmental ministers of the U.S., Mexico and Canada. When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson approached our table, we requested she take a look at two serious threats to public health: 1) the Calumet Refinery in Shreveport chronic Hydrogen sulfide leaks and 2) the ExxonMobil Benzene leak. Her response to the latter was “that’s criminal!” Exactly, Ms. Jackson.
On Thursday July 12, 2012, I flew, along with the Standard Heights Community Association president and secretary to Washington, D.C. to meet the EPA Deputy Administrators of Enforcement, Air and Emergency Response, as well as the EPA Office of the Inspector General. We had three requests:
- A criminal investigation of ExxonMobil for the Benzene release
- An unannounced inspection of the ExxonMobil Refinery and Chemical Plant
- An investigation into the LDEQ and EPA Region VI response
It was an emotional experience for Ms. Shirley and Ms. Tonga to relive the days when the benzene was freely floating in the air of the neighborhood without anyone’s knowledge. But this is exactly what the regulators needed to see, hear and feel. We had to stop the meetings several times so that we could get Ms. Shirley some tissues and allow her to compose herself. The regulators, just like Exxon, need to viscerally feel Ms. Shirley’s pain whenever they make a decision or push some papers regarding this company. One of the frustrations I have doing this work is that the regulators rarely feel a sense of urgency; actions happen at a glacial pace. It only takes one blast of benzene, however, to destroy a family’s quality of life and expose them to illnesses and overwhelming medical bills.
It was Ms. Shirley’s birthday on June 14th. Her daughter, who is usually the first to wake her every morning, was still in bed and complained of a severe headache. “When I found out about the leak on the news, I walked the neighborhood very mad. I had my grandbabies at the house with me that day. I don’t want to feed my grandbabies poison! I invited my sister over that day. I don’t invite my sister over for poison! I made signs and posted them in the neighborhood and at the South Gate of Exxon so that they would see how mad I was. What is the point of dying with your mouth shut?”
[i] The title comes from a blog post by lawyer Stuart Smith regarding the Bucket Brigade’s role in the June 14 Benzene incident. http://www.stuarthsmith.com/pollution-fighters-catch-exxonmobil-in-a-baton-rouge-big-lie