December 07, 2012

An Incident Almost Every Day: Louisiana Bucket Brigade Reports on 2011 Refinery Accidents

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

The good news is that in 2011 there were 53 fewer reported refinery accidents in Louisiana than there were in 2010. The bad news is that the 301 refinery accidents reported to the state in 2011 released nearly 50,000 pounds more air pollutants and nearly 1 million gallons more contaminants to soil and water than did the 354 accidents reported in 2010 – this according to a new report released Monday by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and United Steelworkers. “Our aim is to collaborate with the refineries to solve the problem. Unfortunately that day hasn’t come yet,” said Louisiana Bucket Brigade founding director Anne Rolfes on a call with reporters. “Refinery managers continue to act as if they don’t have an accident problem. Until they face the facts, the oil industry, our economy, our environment and our health will suffer,” said Ms Rolfes.

The report’s release comes less than three weeks after a fire and explosion on an oil platform off the Louisiana coast killed three workers and injured 9, three seriously – and while a Shell Chemical in Norco, Louisiana continued to flare as it had for more than 30 hours.

The report, which is based on refineries’ reporting of accidents to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), found that in 2011 the state’s 17 refineries reported to the state 301 accidents that released more than 1 million pounds of air contaminants and more than 1.3 million gallons of pollutants to soil and water. Among these emissions are sulfur dioxide, benzene, hydrogen sulfide, 1,3-butadiene, and miscellaneous other volatile organic compounds. These substances are all associated with potentially serious adverse health effects, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases; neurological, immune and respiratory system impacts; and cancer. According to US Census figures and the report’s analysis, more than 200,000 people in Louisiana live within two miles of a refinery. This industry is “clearly externalizing its costs on Louisiana,” said Ms. Rolfes.

LABB also notes that what’s reported to LDEQ by the refineries may actually underreport the full extent of these accidental releases. A June 2012 benzene leak from Exxon Mobil’s Baton Rouge refinery was initially reported at 10 pounds. Days later, that amount was revised to nearly 30,000 pounds.

The vast majority of these accidents were caused by some type of equipment failure or something that went wrong in maintenance or operations. The accident-cause categories in LABB’s report, are those used by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission in their voluntary effort to evaluate “unplanned” refinery emissions not covered by state or federal permits. Going back to 2005, when LABB’s refinery database timeline begins, the leading specific cause for accidents at Louisiana refineries was non-specific “equipment failure” at 17.4% followed by “piping or tubing” and “process upset.” More than 20% of these accidents had “no information given” as their cause. Among the 2011 accidents, the only outstanding other cause cited was weather (included in refineries’ reports to LDEQ), which was assigned responsibility for nearly one-third of 2011 accidents at Exxon Mobil’s Baton Rouge refinery.

The report’s top recommendation is “Hire more full-time workers.” Contractors, notes the report, “may be temporary, receive less training and can be terminated easily.” There are “not enough workers present to do adequate maintenance,” said United Steelworkers (USW) spokesperson Lynne Hancock during the press call. “Workers are being asked to do more with less…Workers are really scared. They’re being asked to run enormous units virtually single-handedly,” said Ms. Hancock. “Solving refinery accidents would be good for the economy in Louisiana,” she added, as it would mean “hiring more workers and buying more equipment.”

Assertions of safety; record of poor performance
The Louisiana oil industry has criticized LABB’s accident reporting. “If this report is anything like the previous three reports, it will be filled with errors that misrepresent the data,” said Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association president Chris John in a statement. “We recognize there are risks associated with our operations and we work at all levels – whether people or processes – to make sure everyone goes home safely every day,” said Mr. John. “Safety is of paramount importance to the oil and gas industry – and our record proves it. Louisiana’s industry works hard every day to ensure the safety of our employees, our neighbors and the public. Across the board, accidents, injuries, and emissions are at historic lows. Any refusal to acknowledge this is ignoring the truth.”

Yet in December 2011, the EPA’s Inspector General released a report that cited Louisiana for “poor performance” in Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA regulates solid and hazardous waste) enforcement, noting that “State, EPA regional, and external interview responses attributed Louisiana’s poor performance to several factors, including a lack of resources, natural disasters, and culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry.”

One oil industry criticism has been that LABB includes in its refinery accident database releases that are “below reportable quantities.” Ms. Rolfes explained that LABB includes all accidents reported to the LDEQ, whether or not the reporting threshold, which varies by substance released, was exceeded. She also gave examples of releases below reportable quantities that had resulted in serious injuries and a fatality – one 2010 incident at Exxon Mobil’s Baton Rouge facility that cause a fire that severely burned several workers, and a 2007 hydrogen sulfide release at a ConocoPhillips Lake Charles refinery that killed one worker.

Meanwhile, a look at another gauge of the oil industry’s environmental and safety performance appears to confirm the prevalence of accidents documented by LABB. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the federal bureau that oversees the US offshore oil and gas industry, database of recent incidents and accidents, shows more than 100 fires or explosions on Gulf of Mexico oil platforms each year between 2007 and 2011 (with 71 to date in 2012). The annual injury rates BSEE records at these platforms range from a high of 423 in 2007 to the 141 recorded so far this year. During each of these years there were at least four spills of more than 50 barrels of oil from these facilities. (It’s not possible to tell from the database alone if these numbers include 2010’s BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster that spilled nearly five million barrels of oil – and which may still be leaking.) Additionally, in each year between 2007 and 2012, the US Gulf of Mexico platforms also experienced at least one “loss of well control,” resulting in some kind of uncontrolled fluid flow. Altogether, the “incidents” recorded by BSEE for Gulf of Mexico oil platforms ranged from a high of 890 in 207, to 321 to date in 2012, or an average of abut 636 a year. The numbers have been decreasing, but they remain close to one “incident” a day. Which begs the question:  On or offshore, is one “incident” a day a safety record that should be improved upon?

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

Elizabeth Grossman, Guest Contributor, researcher & author.

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