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ExxonMobil is scrutinized in Baton Rouge after past leaks

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(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the July 15, 2013 edition.)

Government agencies and neighbors are keeping an eye on Baton Rouge's ExxonMobil complex, located next to the Mississippi River on Scenic Highway north of the Governor's Mansion. Neighbors want the authorities and the plant to do more to lower emissions and to alert them about hazardous discharges. Meanwhile, the Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality is deciding how it might penalize ExxonMobil for not reporting changes in a June 2012 leak. Last month, New Orleans lawyers Smith Stag, LLC filed a class action suit on behalf of residents affected by that leak.

Neighbors are watching the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its handling of findings from a surprise inspection of the complex's refinery last July.

Tonga Nolan, secretary of the Standard Heights Community Association, last week said her young daughter became violently ill in the early hours of June 14, 2012 after a chemical leak at ExxonMobil. Standard Heights is directly south of the complex. "We're footsteps from the Exxon plant, my daughter's bed was near what you'd call a showcase window and the fumes got in," Nolan said last week. "She was vomiting and bleeding, and we rushed her to the hospital."

Nolan said as a child she viewed Exxon, Honeywell and other nearby plants as places where people made a living. Since then, she's become concerned about industrial threats. "Our community doesn't have a park, and our kids are playing outside with runny eyes and noses, asthma and nosebleeds," she said. Nolan's noticed a lot of what seem to be premature deaths and wonders why. "In the last seven years, thirteen neighbors on my street of all ages, up to 65, have died of emphysema, cancer, female and other problems," she said.

Smith Stag, LLC in New Orleans filed a class action suit last month of behalf of ten African American, Standard Heights residents and seven minor children, sickened by the June 14, 2012 leak. Early in the morning of the accident, a bleeder plug, which slowly drains off gas and liquids at the complex's Aromatics Production Unit, leaked benzene and other hazardous substances.

"On the day of the incident and in a report to DEQ six days later, Exxon grossly underestimated the amount and types of hazardous substances emitted," attorney Stuart Smith said last week. The suit, seeking compensation for personal injuries, pain and suffering and property damage, will be tried in state district court in East Baton Rouge in a year or two. Residents of Dixie and other communities near the plant can join the petitioners, Smith said. "It's time that ExxonMobil faces the music, acknowledges people's losses and then moves them out of that neighborhood," he said.

ExxonMobil reported its June 14, 2012 incident in a timely manner, Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality spokesman Rodney Mallett said last week. But after that, the company failed to notify DEQ of changes in the nature and rate of its discharges, he said. DEQ filed a compliance order and potential penalty notice against ExxonMobil on July 19, 2012. According to background information in that order, the company discovered the leaking bleeder plug at around 4:35 a.m. on June 14 and notified the Louisiana State Police of an unauthorized discharge at around 5:04 a.m. ExxonMobil reported that the release was controlled at 5:06 a.m. and said the amount of benzene emitted had exceeded the state's required, reportable quantity or RQ of ten pounds. Then the company reported it had surpassed the state's RQ of 1,000 pounds for toluene. The next day, ExxonMobil said that 1,364 pounds of benzene had been emitted on June 14.

In a June 20, 2012 report submitted to DEQ, ExxonMobil detailed pollutants released on June 14 as follows: 28,688 pounds of benzene, 10,882 pounds of toluene, 1,100 pounds of cyclohexane, 1,564 pounds of hexane and 12,605 pounds of additional Volatile Organic Compounds. Last August, the company admitted its June 14 releases had been greater than what it reported on June 20.

But according to ExxonMobil, the June 14, 2012 leak wasn't a health threat. "ExxonMobil conducted air monitoring at more than a hundred points along our fence line on the day of the incident, and with DEQ we continued to monitor air quality for two weeks after the incident," Stephanie Cargile, public and government affairs manager at ExxonMobil Baton Rouge, said last week. "Four types of air-monitoring equipment were used for a total of 236 readings. With respect to the fence line along Scenic Highway, all readings were well below the state's ambient air standard for benzene. Only two of the 236 readings taken detected any emission readings at all. These two readings were at the 0.20 parts per million level, which is a fraction of the state's annual ambient air standard for benzene and below standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration."

Cargile said ExxonMobil and DEQ received no community complaints of odors or health impacts on June 14, 2012 or in the week after the incident. "Unfortunately, activist groups spread misinformation after the plant incident, trying to incite fear and concern by alleging that it had impacted the community," she said.

The company kept the community informed, Cargile said. "On the morning of the incident, we proactively notified local media and elected officials," she said. An ExxonMobil community phone line was updated with incident information, and the company phoned civic association contacts and members of its Community Dialogue Group over the next few days. Company managers talked with Baton Rouge neighbors at face-to-face meetings, she said. "We provided factual information and answers to clarify the misinformation circulated by activists."

EPA made a surprise visit to the Baton Rouge refinery from July 16 to 20, 2012 to see if it was in compliance with the Clean Air Act. An EPA report about the visit, obtained by the New Orleans-based Louisiana Bucket Brigade in February under the Freedom of Information Act, said the refinery contained heavily corroded pipes and ruptured pipelines; pipes and other equipment were overdue for internal inspection; and documentation for emergency and shutdown procedures was incomplete.

"We have reviewed findings from the inspection with EPA to fully understand each allegation," Cargile said last week. EPA's report wasn't a citation or notice of violation, she said, and the company has given EPA additional information since the inspection to address its concerns. "The EPA is still reviewing the inspection report to evaluate whether any of its observations require enforcement action," she said.

Fast forward from last summer at the plant to this spring. A leak in a tail gas clean-up unit at ExxonMobil's refinery was reported to DEQ on May 22. DEQ issued a compliance order and notice of potential penalties to ExxonMobil on May 24, and said an ongoing leak from a pipe had released up to 24 tons of sulphur dioxide a day. The compliance order required ExxonMobil to take all steps needed to meet air quality regulations; reduce production until repairs were completed; conduct offsite monitoring; and control sulphur dioxide emissions.

On May 30, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade did a door-to-door survey of 92 residents in Standard Heights, asking about the impact of the sulphur dioxide leak. Thirty six percent said they had suffered nausea, 22 percent reported headaches, 15 percent had respiratory irritation, 7 percent had eye irritation and 4 percent reported skin problems. Standard Heights residents phoned the Bucket Brigade during the plant incident and reported foul smells, the Brigade said.

Residents interviewed last week said they want to be notified about excess emissions. Tonga Nolan said she and her mother have never received calls from ExxonMobil about imminent, hazardous releases.

But Lois Dorsey, a retired school teacher who lives next to the Exxon plant gate in Dixie, said she and her neighbors do receive phone calls. And Dorsey contacts the plant when she has concerns. "Recently, I asked the plant if it was prepared for hurricane season, and they said they were," she said last week. Dorsey, a 64-year-old retired school teacher, has grown up next to the plant. "I may be the longest resident near the plant in Dixie," she said. Dorsey is asthmatic but hasn't had an attack in years. "The air is cleaner than it used to be," she said. "I watch my diet, have regular checkups and keep a log." She also keeps her windows closed. Dorsey is a member of ExxonMobil's Community Dialogue Group in Baton Rouge. She said anyone can attend the group's meetings.

Melanie Heck, a clerical worker and single mom of four raising two kids in Standard Heights, said she constantly worries about her children if they're home when she's at work. Her big fear is plant lockdowns. "In an emergency, we're supposed to shut our windows, turn off the air conditioning and stay in the house," she said. "The plant takes injured employees to the hospital but we can't drive away." If she's home, the moment she hears a siren from the plant she gets her kids in the car and drives off before the area is cordoned. "The authorities lock us in here in ten minutes," she said.

Mallet said any orders to shelter in place are made by local law-enforcement authorities. "We don't make that call at DEQ," he said.

Rhonda Swazer, a six-year resident of Standard Heights, last week said if she threw a rock from her back door, it would hit the ExxonMobil plant. "Odors from the plant aren't bad every day," she said. "But when they are bad, it's like whoa," she exclaimed. "Suddenly you're nauseated, have a killer headache and need to lie down." On those occasions, her 26-year-old son lies down and coughs a lot. "We'd like Exxon to warn us before they start burning something so we can leave," Swazer said. She doesn't receive warning calls from the plant.

Stephanie Anthony, a former Standard Heights resident who moved away after Gustav damaged her home last August, said Standard Heights, Dixie and other communities nearby, including nearby schools, are polluted. "The company sends out newsletters about how much they're doing to help the schools, and employees from the plant do some tutoring," she said. "But those are Band-Aid approaches." If ExxonMobil really wanted to do something meaningful it would have clinics and asthma camps for kids in the area, she said.

"Exxon's like a man who gives the image of being an ideal husband and father to his fishing buddies but meanwhile he's not taking care of his family," Anthony said.

Last week, Cargile said interaction between company employees and residents is important. "We regularly host Community Dialogue Group meetings, where those who live near our plants can speak directly with company management about our operations," she said. "We maintain a 24-hour, information phone line with the current status of our operations at 225-977-0410. We distribute a quarterly newsletter to about 26,000 households, participate in civic and neighborhood meetings, and offer tours and employee speakers for neighborhood groups."

Cargile said the company's Baton Rouge employees spend 40,000 hours a year volunteering in local schools and non-profits. "They roll up their sleeves at events like HOPE Fest, where more than 700 neighbors enjoy science demonstrations and learn about community resources, and the United Way Day Action, in which employees painted the cafeteria at Istrouma High School." Both events are sponsored by ExxonMobil.

She weighed in out-of-town environmental groups. "Visiting activists who go from community to community to fund raise, spread misinformation and use media stunts to garner attention simply have no role here," Cargile said.

ExxonMobil's environmental performance in Baton Rouge continues to improve, Cargile said. "From 1990 to 2012, we saw a 75 percent decrease in VOC emissions, a 63 percent decrease in SO2 emissions, a 39 percent decrease in NOX emissions and a 73 percent decrease in CO emissions," she said. Flare VOC emissions at the complex declined by more than 31 percent from 2010 to 2012. "These improvements resulted from an investment of about $250 million per year in new projects locally to better protect the environment," she said.

Safety continues to improve at ExxonMobil Baton Rouge, Cargile also said. "The Baton Rouge complex had its best-ever, personnel safety performance in 2012, with a Total Recordable Incident Rate down 35 percent from 2011 and down 75 percent from the previous five-year period," she said. "Over the past five years, we have reduced the number of incidents that exceed a reportable quantity, with an 86 percent reduction of events at our refinery and a 47 percent reduction at our chemical plant."

Among the neighbors interviewed for this story, however, all but one felt ExxonMobil Baton Rouge needs to do more to reduce emissions, increase plant safety and keep them informed. And residents don't want to be chastised for questioning conditions at the Baton Rouge complex. Tonga Nolan said speaking out about her concerns and working as a neighborhood advocate got her fired from her job as an attorney early this year. But she said safety of her family and community is more important to her than her profession. "I'm a mother, daughter and family member first and then an attorney," she said. end

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