Lack of mechanical integrity blamed for leak at Exxon Mobil refinery

A grassroots environmental justice group in Louisiana obtained and released an uncensored Environmental Protection Agency report on an industrial accident at the Exxon Mobil refinery in Baton Rouge. The report states that last summer a leaking valve at the refinery caused the release of more than 20 tons of vaporized chemicals into the environment. One of the chemicals is carcinogenic. The refinery is located near a community that is largely African-American.

The EPA blamed the leak on the refinery’s lack of mechanical integrity noting that its inspection of the refinery found “several instances of piping, valve, and vessel corrosion” that in some instances was “pervasive.” The report also said that the company during the last five years failed to inspect more than 1,000 underground pipes that carry liquid and gas flammable and that 249 required inspections were overdue.

The United Steelworkers (USW), the union of the Exxon Mobil production employees at the refinery, said that the conditions found by EPA were not exclusive to the Baton Rouge refinery but instead were “prevalent throughout the refining sector” and were the cause of fatal accidents at US refineries.

After neighbors of the refinery complained that the leak was causing illnesses in their community, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental health and justice organizations working with communities that are close to Louisiana’s refineries and chemical plants, began demanding information about the leak.

When the leak happened in June, Exxon Mobil tried to downplay its severity. According to the EPA, the company informed the state police as it was required to do about the leak but did not calculate the amount of the leak because it didn’t want to alarm people or set off a panic.

In July, Exxon Mobil calculated the total of the release to be 28,688 lbs of benzene, 10,882 lbs of toluene, 1,100 lbs of cyclohexane, 1,564 lbs of hexane, and 12,605 lbs of addition volatile organic compounds. Benzine is a known carcinogen and toluene can cause nerve damage.

The company, however, didn’t make this information public; instead, it told the public that the gases released into the environment were minimal.

The Bucket Brigade pressed for more information and in December, the company gave the brigade an abridged report from the EPA on the incident, however the report was heavily redacted including the information about the amount of gases released in the air.

The brigade made a Freedom of Information request directly to the EPA for an unredacted version of the report and received it at the end of February.

According to the report, the company in 2009 also failed to report properly another catastrophic incident in which nine refinery workers were hospitalized after being exposed to a carbon monoxide leak.

In a statement about the report, USW said that US refineries like the one at Baton Rouge are old and need “diligent inspections” and timely maintenance but that companies are often lax in carrying out their responsibilities.

“The problems cited at the Baton Rouge refinery facility  are universal,” reads USW’s statement. “The lack of mechanical integrity in refinery equipment has been a contributing cause in many of the worst accidents this industry has experienced. Mechanical integrity was a factor in the recent Chevron refinery fire, for which CalOSHA fined the company nearly $1 million; the April 2010 Tesoro Anacortes refinery explosion, which killed seven people; and the infamous BP Texas City refinery explosion and fire where 15 people were killed.”

USW also said that the EPA report also shows that the Baton Rouge refinery did not have sufficient staff to handle emergency situations. “Staffing concerns are another major issue the USW has been trying to address and that were cited as a problem at (the Baton Rouge refinery),” reads the USW statement.

“ExxonMobil’s failure to take appropriate action on items they identified as a concern disturbs us. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated issue but an industry-wide problem. When equipment is identified as being outside a safe operating range, it should be replaced or mitigated as soon as possible. To ignore these items should be a criminal offense because the company is knowingly placing workers and the community at risk,” concluded the union’s statement.

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