By Bonnie May, Community Organizer
Starting on May 21st, the ExxonMobil Refinery and Chemical plant reported having equipment failures and releases of chemicals for over a week.
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality gave Exxon Mobil a variance to release up to 24 tons of sulfur dioxide a day. Louisiana Bucket Brigade responded to this accident by collecting data on these chemical releases, and by deploying the Accident Response team to find out more about what people in the near-by communities were experiencing.
On May 30th, 2013, we arrived in the Standard Heights community in Baton Rouge, right by the ExxonMobil facility. We had a quick lunch and then went out to work to talk to residents in the neighborhood to see if they noticed anything from the accident – smells, health effects, sounds. Earlier, we were briefed on the timeline of the accident that took place, but we were instructed not to tell residents about the details of the accident until after we found out if they experienced anything. We thoughtfully discussed why it was important not to skew anyone’s perceptions of the last week. If someone had experienced a chemical smell or having ill health affects, they would remember it. Our job was to record the collective knowledge of the community, and to guide them to recall exact dates or describe a smell as smelling like anything else – so that we could identify what chemicals were released.
The people of Standard Heights had direct experience. They knew better than anyone else in Baton Rouge how severe an accident at the ExxonMobil facility could be. For many of us on the Accident Response team, our job on other days was to go out to different communities in Louisiana and educate them about the accidents in Louisiana’s seventeen refineries. If people were supportive of our work and wanted to see us do more of it, we would also fundraise. Today was different. We were going directly to the people who experienced some of the most horrifying petrochemical accidents in the state, year after year, and we were asking to hear their stories. Today was less about talking, and more about listening.
Many of the people in Standard Heights were outside, spending time with their neighbors and other friends. Most of them already knew who we were. Of all the people I talked to, no one batted an eyelash when I mentioned that ExxonMobil had an accident last week. Most people said that smelling strange things was a normal occurrence in their neighborhood, but many of them still remembered something particularly bad about the last week.
I talked to three high-school students who were hanging out by their car. Two of them gave me reports of what they smelled last week, and health problems. One of them was shockingly exact on his report. “It was May 24th to 26th. I smelled something that smelled like sewage. I almost threw up, so I stayed inside.” I gave them the phone number for the I-Witness pollution map and walked them through on how to make a report. One of the teenagers started writing a text message for his report. I spent about five minutes talking with some of the other residents outside, and when I went to check back on the boy who was writing his report, he was still speedily texting away. “You said to be as detailed as possible, ma’am!”
As I was walking to another house, a couple in a car stopped me to ask if they needed to fill out anything – they were about to leave. I told them what we were doing and they reported to me what they experienced from their car, waiting patiently while I asked them questions and gave them the phone number for the I-Witness Pollution Map. They remembered smelling something foul, and that their two children threw up that same day.
Of the twenty people I talked to, sixteen experienced some kind of health effect or knew someone in their family that did. Almost everyone smelled something strong and foul on at least one of the days of the accident. I talked to three people who had asthma and stayed inside as soon as they smelled something, to avoid having an attack. One woman described two different smells that happened on two different days that week. “The first smell was like sewage, and the second smell was like tar.” At the end of the night, I talked to a woman who lived right by the refinery and she said she didn’t experience anything and that “people were probably just making it up.” I thought it was odd to think that sixteen people – of all those I talked to, not counting the other people in the Accident Response team who were also talking to people – would be making all of this up. I thought about how difficult it would be to live in this neighborhood, day after day, and try to get work done while suffering from so many health problems. I had trouble enough functioning during allergy season.
I was struck by how willing people were to talk to me, despite still being busy like any other community. In any other neighborhood I’ve visited, busy people didn’t often want to stay and chat with me. However, people in Standard Heights seemed to realize the importance of this. We were out their to document their experiences, and they had a lot to tell. Their experiences conflicted with what ExxonMobil was reporting – that the accident had “no off-site impact.”
During the week of May 21st, Exxon Mobil in Baton Rouge was able to continue selling their product to their clients. However, this was also as they were having equipment failures and a string of releases of various chemicals in their facility for over a week – many of them carcinogens and respiratory irritants. If Exxon Mobil can figure out how to continue supplying their product while not poisoning an entire community in the process, that would be great.