Residents expressed their disdain for ExxonMobil's public safety measures in a Wednesday meeting organized by a state senator to consider introducing legislation that might improve emergency protocol.
In a tense and crowded church filled with ExxonMobil spokespeople, state and city officials, area law enforcement and state Department of Environmental Quality representatives, residents harangued those involved in responding to last week's refinery fire for failing to notify them of potential hazards — either in a timely manner or at all.
ExxonMobil said in a report released Tuesday that tens of thousands of pounds of unspecified flammable vapor were released during the spectacular fire at its Baton Rouge refinery. Most of that material, however, was consumed by the blaze and none of it escaped the plant in concentrations that could have posed a risk to people. No injuries were reported.
ExxonMobil maintains their automated dialer notification system sent a notice to approximately 1,900 phone numbers the night of the incident.
The ExxonMobil refinery and facilities that produce chemicals, resins, polyolefins and other material are in a lightly populated area of north Baton Rouge west of Interstate 110.
Responding to an outcry from those residents living closest to the refinery along Scenic Highway, state Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, organized Wednesday's meeting to bring together leaders for a discussion about what did and did not work the night of the fire. Fields also emphasized the value of community input to develop ideas for legislation he plans to introduce next session on statewide emergency notifications.
State Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, added that the gathering should be about transparency.
"This is not about fussing today — it’s about an action plan," Jordan said. "It’s not necessarily about blame, but it is about accountability. All of you who live in the community have … a right to be safe and secure in your homes."
Officials related how they generally respond in emergency situations like the fire, and provided a timeline of their actions the night of the incident.
While residents listened with varying degrees of attentiveness, they responded with rapt attention when one ExxonMobil representative stood up and spoke.
Roderick Coffee described himself as a shift supervisor at the facility, among other roles. He told the room he wanted them to know who he is — someone who grew up in the area, who has a mother who lives blocks away from the refinery.
"If you don’t trust them, that’s fine. Trust me," Coffee said. "And here’s why you should trust me. It’s because my momma lives across the street. If I’m protecting my momma, I’m protecting you."
Coffee added many of the people he works with are from Scotlandville, born and raised, or live in the area now with their families. They have an interest in keeping their loved ones safe as much as local residents, he explained.
When the floor opened to public comments, however, many vented their anger at the industrial giant for years of uncertainty and anxiety surrounding emissions, flares and fires.
One man took issue with ExxonMobil and area officials deciding when to release details about the fire to the public. The immediate panic of seeing the sky turn orange, he said, left many people worrying about whether they needed to get their children or elderly grandparents to safety.
"Even if it’s only a possibility that releases will be made into our community, then allow us to make a decision," he said.
Another woman ticked off a litany of catastrophes involving ExxonMobil and expressed her disbelief at how little has changed.
When retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, an environmental advocate, arrived at the lectern to speak, the room erupted with cheers. Honoré called for better air monitoring along the industrial corridor of Scenic Highway and lambasted what he characterized as a lack of speed in response time to the ExxonMobil fire. He closed with a call to unity with the hopes that legislators could come together to improve safety outcomes.
"We want to work cooperatively," Honoré said. "This is not throwing bricks. We’ve got to live together, but we’ve got to have a better response."