The number of accidents reported by ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge was lower in 2013 than in 2012, but environmental groups said Saturday that doesn’t mean much because the numbers depend on self-reporting from the company itself.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Green Army met Saturday morning to release refinery accident numbers for 2013, the most recent numbers that are available, and to call for action to ensure safety of air and water.
ExxonMobil reported 32 accidents in 2013, compared to 52 reported in 2012. The state’s 17 refineries reported a total of 331 accidents in 2013, which was little changed from the 327 reported in 2012.
“We’re concerned about pollution and the effects on people,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the environmental group Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, the outspoken leader of the Green Army environmental group, said refineries and other industrial facilities self-report any pollution releases. However, by the time the reports get to people living near the facilities, it’s usually too late for them to take action.
That’s why environmental groups have been pushing for what Honoré called a 21st-century monitoring system. Such systems would include air monitors that would continuously read air quality and send automatic alerts to residents if a problem is detected.
“We’re all adults. We know stuff happens,” Honoré said.
Honoré said there’s no denying that the industrial plants make things that people need.
“I drove here with fuel that probably came from these plants,” he said, speaking at a church just outside the fence line of ExxonMobil.
However, now when there is a pollution release, the response from the company and agencies most of the time is that the material never had an impact past the fence line of the facility, Honoré said.
“How do you stop gas from going beyond a chain link fence?” he asked.
Honoré said the intent isn’t to get anyone or any company in trouble but to get people access to information so they can limit their exposure to harmful pollutants.
“We’ve sacrificed a lot in Louisiana so the rest of the world gets what they want,” he said.
The refinery accident report compiled by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade from company-reported information provided to the state Department of Environmental Quality showed the state’s 17 refineries reported 331 accidents in 2013.
That’s more than six accidents a week on average. While lower than the eight per week average from 2005 to 2013, it still shows a need for better communication to communities when accidents occur, the report released Saturday states.
“Residents are rarely notified during these accidents,” the report says.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade calculated that the 331 reported accidents included the release into the air of more than 800,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide, more than 200,000 pounds of hydrogen cyanide and more than 200,000 pounds of carbon monoxide.
“The only data we have on refinery pollution comes from self-reporting, so pollution totals are likely underestimated,” the two-page report says.
Companies included in the annual report have long disputed the numbers the Louisiana Bucket Brigade uses, saying the group includes releases that don’t come under regulations that mandate reporting, as well as material that is burned off through flares.
Companies also have maintained that the report doesn’t reflect the increasing air quality and reduction in emissions companies have made over time.
“It might be missing the forest for the trees to not look at the broader air quality trend,” said Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
ExxonMobil in Baton Rouge, which was highlighted in Saturday’s meeting, said overall pollution releases at the refinery and chemical plant have been reduced by more than 40 percent since 1990. That includes a 75 percent reduction in volatile organic compounds, a 55 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide releases and a 40 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides, ExxonMobil officials said.
Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds can combine in the air to produce ozone pollution. After years of struggle, the greater Baton Rouge area currently meets the federal ozone standard.
Stephanie Cargile, public and government affairs manager with ExxonMobil Baton Rouge, wrote that they hadn’t seen a copy of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade report.
“ExxonMobil Baton Rouge continually strives to reduce emissions and reduce the number and severity of incidents. In fact, 2013 was a record year for environmental performance. The refinery experienced its best-ever reliability performance last year, including reductions in spills and flaring,” she wrote.
Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said the industry as a whole also has been taking steps to reduce accidental pollution releases.
The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Chemical Association are spearheading a program that brings together operational staff, managers and others from Louisiana companies to talk about how to reduce accidental releases.
So far, there have been three workshops with about 100 to 150 people attending each one to focus on different causes of releases that were identified in a survey of companies three years ago.
“It’s not something we’re ignoring,” Metcalf said.
Although the focus of the meeting Saturday was to discuss the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s annual report on refinery accidents, the topics at the meeting were much more wide flung, from the issue of saltwater intrusion into the aquifer that serves Baton Rouge drinking water to the ongoing situation at Bayou Corne.
Honoré said the industrial companies are too powerful in the state and essentially control politicians to get exemptions from regulations and accountability. The only way a change will be made, he said, is if everyday people take action and make their voices heard by reporting odors or chemical releases, going to city council meetings and asking them to take action and participating in larger actions like one the groups will hold in April on the State Capitol steps.
“The only ones who are going to save us, is us,” Honoré said. “If we don’t complain, they think we’re happy.”
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade asks people to call (504) 272-7645 to report concerns. The state Department of Environmental Quality complaint line is at (225) 219-3640 or toll free at (888) 763-5424.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.