Benzene Burning on the Open Flare, Sulfides Stinking in your Nose: The Fenceline Holiday Experience

By Selena Poznak, Volunteer Coordinator

Imagine flares and black smoke filling the air, toxic odors in your lungs, and a noise so deafening you can’t escape it even inside your house, and you’ve got a good idea of how refinery neighbors in Baton Rouge, Norco, Chalmette, and Shreveport spent this holiday season. Our chemical carols, originally written as a joke, became a chillingly accurate description of the holiday experience for many fenceline neighbors.

norcosantaFrom December 21st through 27th, we received four iWitness Pollution Map reports from Baton Rouge residents about a chemical gas smell pervading their neighborhood.

Most of us keep our fingers crossed not to get sick during the holiday season, but that’s difficult to control when you’re inhaling toxic chemicals. One resident told us, “It smells like chemicals in the air. You know it’s bad . . . My nose is getting stuffy.”

Another said, “I smell a gas smell in the neighborhood. Let me check outside again and I hear sound like pipes are roaring. I don’t know whether it is coming from Exxon or Honeywell. That’s what I smell. It comes and goes but you know it’s there.”

In Norco, residents reported flaring from both Shell/Motiva and Valero refineries from December 23rd through the 31st, without even a reprieve on Christmas Day. Residents told us:

 “Shell/Motiva began a release of something with a Loud Flaring Noise. Loud enough to hear inside our house with the doors shut, T.V. on, heater on and running. Not sure what’s going on but this is getting annoying.”

Another report from the 27th, “Valero St. Bernard Parish sounds like a jet engine is taking off. Lots and lots of steaming, so much so it looks like smoke from a fire.”

And from Christmas day: “Several different flares at Motiva. Merry Christmas, ech ech :/”

The Chalmette and Algiers ferries were shut down after a ferry captain and passengers got sick due to a chemical release, probably from the RAIN CII petroleum coke processing plant. Reports about this release began on December 21st and continued through the 26th.

Ferry passengers called the Sheriff’s Office complaining of throat and eye irritation, describing a black cloud of smoke hanging over the river. The ferry, which was traveling from the east bank to the west bank at the time, was forced to turn around because of the smoke and sick passengers. The DEQ’s measurements of the air quality in Chalmette seem to indicate a violation of the state health standard for sulfur dioxide emission. Though RAIN CII denies responsibility for the release, the DEQ suspects that they are the cause.

Residents reported flaring and black smoke from Calument Refinery in Shreveport. Between December 21st and January 1st, we received 7 reports to the iWitness pollution map about “high flaring and black smoke” coming from the refinery. 3 of these reports came on Christmas Day and 1 on New Year’s Day.

Shreveport resident Ms. Velma White told us that the flare and the odor associated with it, resulting from the release of a high level of sulfur dioxide, were “the first things I noticed when I woke up on Christmas morning.” The flaring was high even though the weather was storming with heavy rain. Though she was inside her house with the doors and windows closed, she said that “there was no way to escape the odor.” She ended up leaving the area later that day, unable to enjoy Christmas in her home because of the flare.

On Christmas Day, Ms. Velma also reported the flare to the state police. She told us: “I called the state police and reported that Calumet was flaring. Thursday of last week was when the DEQ department called me back and told me that they were calling in response to my complaint from December 25th and that Calumet had a power outage and was releasing [an amount of] Sulfur Dioxide which exceeded their permit limit.”

We at the Bucket Brigade find it disheartening that these refineries made the holiday season difficult for so many of their neighbors. While many of us enjoyed the holidays in the comfort of our homes surrounded by family, delicious food, and the celebratory atmosphere that accompanies the year-end holidays, these refineries made it impossible, even in the season of celebration, for residents to escape the stress, annoyance, discomfort, and health detriment that comes with being their neighbors.

If you experienced anything over the holidays, please report it to our iWitness Pollution Map or call or text 504-272-7645.

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