“Did you see or smell it?” It’s Friday, January 31st, and I’m handing out cards with this headline in the Standard Heights community of Baton Rouge. The LABB Emergency Response Team has deployed for the second time this week, due to yet another refinery accident. On Monday January 27th between 4 and 5 pm, we received three reports to our iWitness Pollution Map, all describing flaring at the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Refinery.
One community member described, “Exxon is flaring and I hear some rumbling noise and also sound like air sounds, like air is trying to get out. And I also smelled something like burnt air or burnt rubber in the air.” Another person reported, “It’s been burning for maybe 30-40 minutes.” A third reporter captured a photo of the flare from their backyard.
“Did you see or smell it?” We knew that at least three Standard Heights residents had. Apparently ExxonMobil did not. In addition to the community reports compiled on our iWitness Pollution Map, we also include the refinery’s self reports to the National Response Center (NRC). We never received an NRC report from ExxonMobil for the Monday, January 27th incident, meaning they never reported it to the authorities.
What’s the big deal? Refineries flare — emit smoke and flames from their stacks — all the time. It’s a safety practice to reduce pollution by “burning off” hazardous emissions. This is the public image that flares have, when in fact they’re indicators of potentially harmful emissions. Emissions are calculated as if flares consistently burn off 99% of the hazardous materials released, when in reality, flares are rarely so successful. How do we know? We smell it. We feel it. The iWitness Pollution Map consistently shows reports of odor and health effects accompanying flares.
The community reports on the iWitness Pollution Map point to flares as indicators of operations gone wrong. But don’t take our word for it. EPA reports from as far back as 2000 cite frequent flaring as bad practice that “results in unacceptably high releases of sulfur dioxide and other noxious pollutants.” Flaring for more than five minutes in a two-hour period is a violation of the Clean Air Act. If you’ll remember, one reporter described the flare as lasting 30 to 40 minutes — well above the maximum 5 minutes.
So the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Refinery violated the Clean Air Act as well as neglecting to report their release. It’s frustrating to see this blatant disregard of the conditions around the refinery.
Talking to those in the Standard Heights community next to ExxonMobil, it’s evident that they’re frustrated too. When I explain what I’m doing on their doorstep, the most common response is that they regularly notice smoke, flames, and bad smells coming from the refinery. It’s clear that poor air quality is a part of everyday life in communities in the shadows of refineries.
After almost three hours of fieldwork, the sky is getting dark. I pass a group of kids playing outside and approach one of my final houses for the day. A slender, confident girl of about 9 jumps off her bike and runs up to me. “I think my mom’s in the back… This way.” I follow her to the back door, where she ducks under the screen and yells for Mom. I wait by the laundry room and watch the kids playing on the street. When her mother comes to the door, I ask if she noticed anything on Monday and she immediately describes the thick, gray cloud of smoke coming from ExxonMobil. “It smelled so bad, I kept my children inside,” she tells me, concerned. The kids are yelling and chasing each other on their bikes. What a choice — let your child play and worry for their health, or keep them inside all evening? How often does she have to make this decision? How often does she see or smell something, not knowing what it is, or how it is affecting her and her family?
“Did you see or smell it?” During our time in Standard Heights, we got at least 6 more reports to the map from residents who remembered the flaring on Monday at ExxonMobil. How could ExxonMobil act like nothing had happened? The people of the Standard Heights, Chalmette, and other fenceline communities are real. Their experiences are real, and their health should be a priority. If the refineries won’t report their accidents, we, the residents of Louisiana, will. Text, call, email, or use the website to report what you see and smell to the iWitness Pollution Map.