The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality says that pollution from industrial accidents is decreasing. They even have a number for it – 41% since 2008. Yet last week the agency created the Information Exchange Workgroup to address the problem of accidents at Louisiana’s petrochemical plants. Is our LDEQ an overachieving, ambitious agency determined to eliminate accidents? Or is it the agency that the EPA Inspector General described as having “a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry?” (p. 21)
I think it’s the latter. For the last 14 years I’ve had a front row seat and seen that culture in action. During accidents large and small, “nothing harmful was released” is the mantra of industry and LDEQ. The largest tank fire in U.S. history (Orion, 2002)? Nothing found. A million gallon oil spill during Hurricane Katrina (Murphy Oil, 2005)? No ongoing impact. A 30,000 pound benzene release from ExxonMobil (June, 2012)? LDEQ initially accepted Exxon’s report that the accident was less than ten pounds. No matter the political party of the administration, year after year, the petrochemical industrial complex is protected at the people’s expense.
Given this reality, it’s easy to be completely skeptical of LDEQ’s new workgroup. Yet we shouldn’t be. They are doing what we’ve asked. In 2008 the Louisiana Bucket Brigade developed the Refinery Efficiency Initiative with the explicit goal of reducing refinery accidents. We patterned it after the Episodic Release Initiative that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had sponsored in the late 1990s. The paper trail of that work group was clear, with recommendations that would have led to accident reduction. Yet once George Bush was elected in 2000, the program went nowhere. Our Refinery Efficiency Initiative was an attempt to revive attention to refinery accidents.
And so it has been revived, in a different form, perhaps, but the LDEQ’s Information Exchange Workgroup has the explicit goal of encouraging industry to share information with the goal of reducing accidents. This is good news, and we should recognize that.
There are many questions, of course. Among them:
- How long has the workgroup been operating? How transparent is this process?
- Are companies using claims of Confidential Business Information (CBI) to undermine the workgroup goals? ExxonMobil’s claim of CBI caused the EPA to heavily redact a recent inspection of the refinery. Once the complete inspection was released, the CBI was revealed to be a description of poor operations and management at the refinery. Embarrassing, yes. Proprietary, no.
- What is the LDEQ going to do about unreported and underreported accidents? As the June 2012 benzene release at ExxonMobil shows, the agency blindly accepts industry reports. The LDEQ should make a plan for improving reporting.
- How will stakeholders be included? Workers, neighbors and groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade have important feedback. We can tell the industries and LDEQ if their plans are successful. It’s one thing to draw up accident prevention on paper. It’s another thing to find out if it’s really working. We should be seen as useful partners in this process and not as the enemy.
Just this week Velma White of Shreveport, President of Residents for Air Neutralization, felt her face burning from a flare. Flares and accidents are common (though unreported) at Calumet. Ms. White is diligent in doing what Calumet doesn’t do: letting the LDEQ and EPA know.
In August of 2011 she and her colleagues were heartened by an EPA inspection of Calumet. The findings were damning, from hydrogen sulfide leaks that endangered workers to filing false reports. The findings were so bad that Tom Germany, the plant manager told inspectors “he knows what good looks like and recognizes that Calumet is not there yet.” Yet there has been no enforcement. This is too slow. This has gone on for too long.
So we celebrate LDEQ’s creation of the workgroup. But our celebration is tempered by reality. We’ll really celebrate when LDEQ blows out all those flares in Shreveport (and Baton Rouge and Chalmette and Lake Charles.) Until then, we’ll use those flares as inspiration.