In an industry where operations and technical methods can be closely held secrets, how do you get oil, gas and chemical producers to work together to share ideas that could improve safety and reduce pollution?

It’s a question that industry raised with the state Department of Environmental Quality. Together they worked out a plan that allowed industry representatives to share investigations anonymously into the root cause of non-permitted, accidental releases of pollution to see if patterns emerge that could point to solutions.

“We meet with industry regularly about problems,” Sam Phillips, DEQ assistant secretary, said last week.

One topic that has come up is “episodic releases” — or when material from a plant is released that isn’t planned and isn’t included in a plant’s permit.

The discussion turned to a small program that had been run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1990s. The program has industry shared information anonymously and, “we kicked around the potential to have that happen again,” Phillips said.

“Last fall, (industry representatives) came to us and said if DEQ facilitates, we’d like to participate,” Phillips said.

At that time there were about a dozen facilities that expressed interest in participating, he said.

The Louisiana Chemical Association and Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas association put together a survey in November that asked companies to look at incidents that had occurred at their facilities to determine the cause and other information.

Phillips said there was hope that at least 15 facilities would participate in the survey, but ultimately about 40 facilities returned the information along with how they classify the root cause, whether it be an electrical failure, human error or some other cause.

It’s all information on accidents that DEQ already has been notified of and has been reported, Phillips said.

“But when you get into root cause analysis, some of that is proprietary,” Phillips said.

He said the process has not yet moved beyond the root cause analysis.

Each facility, after an unplanned release of materials, is supposed to do this type of root cause analysis and while the work is good, Phillips said, there is value in looking at a large group of similar incidents to see if a pattern emerges. This pattern could point to a solution that wasn’t evident by just looking at a single incident, he said.

“When you look across the board, you see patterns you don’t see with just this piece,” Phillips said. “If we see results from this, this will become an SOP (standard operating procedure) for us.”

Industry representatives said they tried to make the process as easy and confidential as possible to get more participation.

“I think we made it as user friendly as possible,” said Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas. “I think people are truly interested in minimizing the releases.”

There’s an estimated 100 refineries and chemical plants in state and about 20 utilities and paper and pulp plants, Metcalf said.

Speaking for refineries, Metcalf said, “I know they embrace the effort.”

With the surveys being anonymous, it’s difficult to tell exactly which sectors of industry the survey results came from, but Metcalf said at least seven of them are from refineries.

The surveys ask the facilities to look at the last two years of incidents at their plant that required a report to EPA, DEQ or State Police, Metcalf said.

The next step will be to look at the incidents within each grouping of cause and make a decision as to which areas need attention. Then the call will go out to the industry representatives for possible solutions.

“If you had this problem in the past and you solved it, we want you to share,” Metcalf said.

An example he gave was one company that kept having gasket failure and found that it was buying gaskets from a multitude of suppliers. When the company cut that number of suppliers down significantly, it provided better control of quality and the gasket failures were greatly reduced, he said.

“The main goal of this is information exchange,” Metcalf said.

Henry Graham, vice president of environmental affairs and general counsel with the Louisiana Chemical Association, agreed.

“Hope that we see some common trends to say let’s look into this,” Graham said. “Hopefully company A can learn something from company B to reduce releases.”

Environmental groups generally praised the effort and representatives said they look forward to seeing the result.

“I think this is a great step in the right direction for industry to go,” said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. “I think it sounds progressive.”

Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, agreed.

“Hooray,” she said.

The nonprofit environmental organization has worked for years asking for industry to do more in the root cause analysis to prevent future non-permitted releases.

“It seems like the state is finally listening and doing something about it,” Rolfes said.

However, she added, there are a number of things that can be done to improve safety by enforcing laws that are on the books.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there,” she said.