By Anna Hrybyk, LABB Program Manager
September 20, 2012
Office of Inspector General
Environmental Protection Agency
Mail Code 2410T
Environmental Protection Agency
Mail Code 1101A
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20460
Re: LDEQ’s Rapid Response to Chemical Emergencies Poses Serious Dangers to the Public
Dear Mr. Elkins and Ms. Jackson:
We write to you today to alert you to the great frequency of life threatening petrochemical accidents in South Louisiana. We are requesting two action items that require your immediate attention:
- Risk Management Plan inspections be conducted for all chemical plants and refineries in the path of Hurricane Isaac, particularly Stolthaven Chemical Plant Braithwaite, Phillips 66 Refinery Belle Chasse, Chalmette Refining, Shell Chemical and Motiva Refinery Norco, Valero Meraux and Valero Norco to ensure that they are prepared to prevent future risks.
- Revoke the authority of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to administer the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Emergency Response programs.
So far in 2012, we have seen 14 major chemical emergencies in Southeast Louisiana:
- March 22, 2012 & May 10, 2012 – On March 22, 2012 at Westlake Chemical, Geismar a tank exploded releasing vinyl choride, chlorine and many other chlorinated chemicals. Even though the tank exploded at 8:30am, EPA does not start air monitoring until that afternoon. The Geismar community is required to shelter in place even though the wind direction put the Modeste community across the river in Ascension Parish at greater risk. Modeste is not even notified that they may be in danger. On May 10, 2012 Westlake Chemical suffers a power outage in the same unit releasing more vinyl chloride and sending three workers to the hospital for inhalation injuries.
- May 8, 2012 – Shell Chemical in Norco is struck by lightening and flares for over 24 hours releasing benzene, butadiene, carbon monoxide, ethylene, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxide, propylene, sulfur dioxide, xylene, and other volatile organic compounds. LDEQ air monitors arrive on the scene over 12 hours later, and the agency states in the press that the release poses no danger to the public.
- May 15, 2012 – Honeywell in Baton Rouge leaked hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic substance. There is no LDEQ presence at the scene even though the LDEQ Headquarters are less than two miles from the plant.
- June 14, 2012 – ExxonMobil in Baton Rouge reported to the NRC only 10 pounds of Benzene released but by June 18 they had revised their estimate to upwards of 28,686 pounds of Benzene after workers alerted LABB to the real amount. No one in the community was notified of the ongoing release even though 400 workers were being monitored for exposure. LDEQ was on-scene the morning of June 14th but did not enter the plant, did not test for low levels of Benzene on the perimeter and publicly stated that the release did not leave the plant. EPA Region 6 was in the neighborhood on June 14th and smelled the strong VOC odors but did nothing.
- June 15 – 27, 2012 – Shell/Motiva Norco began flaring nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds and other chemicals for 12 straight days. Nothing by the company has been reported to the NRC or to LDEQ regarding the cause and exact amount of pollution release during this flaring marathon. Reports to LABB’s iWitness Pollution Map say the flare fluctuated between 20 to 100 feet in height. Photos posted to the map show a large ground flare with black smoke.
- August 3, 2012 – A 422-foot-deep, 372-foot-diameter sinkhole emerged close to Texas Brine salt domes containing oil waste, diesel and natural gas. Residents were reporting roiling bubbles and odors for months to the LDEQ, but no one listened. Almost one month later, residents are still reporting strong hydrocarbon odors coming from the site. LDEQ has dispatched their MultiRae air monitor but has not picked up anything and has been seen riding around with it held out the window, potentially compromising the samples due to wind speed. Since August 3rd, the sinkhole has expanded by over 200’.
- August 17, 2012 – Sun Drilling in Belle Chasse released a vapor cloud of divinylbenzene affecting hundreds of residents living within 2 miles of the facility. LDEQ towed the company line and insisted the cloud was only nitrogen used to cool the expanding tank. LABB surveyed 160 residents who claimed that the cloud smelled like benzene, spraypaint and burning oil. Nitrogen has no smell. Surveyed residents also reported health impacts from breathing in the cloud such as headaches, eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory health problems. Nitrogen would not cause this.
- August 29, 2012– Hurricane Isaac was a Category 1 hurricane. It’s storm surge, rain and winds inundated Southeast Louisiana. Two refineries, Phillips 66 in Belle Chasse and Chalmette Refining, shut down operations quickly reportedly causing over 550,000 pounds of pollution in the process.
- Shell, Motiva and Valero refineries in Norco and Meraux did NOT shut down even though the parish was under a mandatory evacuation order. According to a worker at Shell Chemical Norco, the plant manager should have shut down because they could not get the flare to light because the ignition boxes were dislodged in the wind, all of the furnaces tripped, motors went underwater, half of the pumps cavitated burning up all the pump seals and operators were ordered to go out in hurricane force winds to tie things down and drain blocked canals all while sheets of metal were flying through the air.
- Stolthaven Chemical in located in Braithwaite was inundated with 12 feet of storm surge that caused storage tanks to collapse or move off their foundations and rail cars to overturn. Overflight photos and citizen reports from right after the hurricane show offsite contamination. Stolthaven’s report to LDEQ states that contamination “flowed offsite with storm surge,” yet LDEQ continued to make public assurances that there was no spill.
This list does not include the chronic petrochemical accidents that occur, according to the National Response Center, at a rate of approximately 10 per day all over the state. As hurricane season continues, this pattern is of great concern to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and our constituents.
Of even greater concern is the LDEQ’s propensity to declare to the public that none of these accidents pose any danger to human health or property. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade feels that these statements are inaccurate and place the public at greater risk because:
- Monitoring has never been conducted exactly at the time of peak exposure or any time period even close to the peak exposure.
- LDEQ never shares with the public elevated levels of chemicals that were found in their sampling unless you submit a public records request.
- It is not made transparent the exact times and locations of the peaks and valleys in the monitoring data, indicating communities most impacted by acute chemical exposure, unless you submit a public records request.
The LABB’s iWitness Pollution Map (www.labucketbrigade.org) is a real time crowd sourced map of citizen reports of petrochemical accidents and their effects on people’s health and their environment. These reports detailing symptoms of acute chemical exposure contradict the “no danger to the public” statements made by LDEQ and the companies. LABB conducts due diligence with these reports by sending them to all enforcement agencies, including the EPA, the US Coast Guard and LDEQ.
This lack of rapid response creates even more danger to the public because:
- People are exposed to highly toxic chemicals.
- Evacuation/shelter in place orders are never called.
- Health surveillance for symptoms of chemical exposure are never triggered.
- Communities distrust the LDEQ because they never find a problem.
- It increases the population at risk. If people believe the LDEQ statements that these accidents pose no danger to the public, they make decisions like buying a house next to a refinery or sending their kids to school near a chemical plant due to a (false) sense of safety.
We have been tracking citizen complaints made to the LDEQ since 2005 on our Refinery Accident Database (http://www.labucketbrigade.org). In some cases it takes LDEQ over 20 days to get to the scene of reported air pollution. Obviously, the monitor will not pick up anything 20 days later! With air releases, pollution can move within a matter of minutes so the quicker the response time the more accurate the readings.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Environmental Integrity Project are renewing our petition to the EPA to revoke the LDEQ’s authority to manage the Clean Air Act program due to the frequency of hazardous petrochemical accidents happening in our area. As of today, we still have not received a response from the Inspector General’s office on the petition filed on December 14, 2011.
We look forward to your response no later than October 31st, 2012.
LABB Program Manager
Peggy Hatch, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality
Cheryl Nolan, Administrator of Enforcement, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality
Esteban Herrera, Chief of Air Toxics Enforcement, EPA Region VI
Ron Curry, Regional Administrator, EPA Region VI
Steve Mason, Emergency Response, EPA Region VI
Mathy Stanislaus, Solid Waste and Emergency Response, EPA HQ
Cynthia Giles, Administrator Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, EPA HQ
Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director, Environmental Integrity Project