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ExxonMobil Won't Admit Baton Rouge Plants Had Safety Violations

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This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Jan. 20, 2014 edition.

ExxonMobil must pay $2.329 million in a settlement, announced by Louisiana's Dept. of Environmental Quality last August and finalized early this month, to address violations from 2008 into 2013 at its greater Baton Rouge facilities. The settlement was DEQ's biggest with any company last year. But critics question whether the agreement was large enough or even appropriate. ExxonMobil, a major employer in the state capital, was cited for a series of problems at its refinery and resin-finishing and chemical plants in East Baton Rouge Parish and its tank-farm facility in West Baton Rouge.

In the agreement, DEQ said the settlement spares both parties the expense of litigation. The settlement was proposed by ExxonMobil and approved by the state following extensive negotiations, according to DEQ. ExxonMobil in the accord denies that it committed any violations or is liable for any penalties. But the company nonetheless agreed to a $300,000 payment to settle claims. Of that, $34,386 covered DEQ's enforcement costs against ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge-area facilities.

Early this month, DEQ said the settlement was approved following a public review period late last year and was signed by state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell in December. In addition to paying a civil penalty of $300,000 to DEQ, ExxonMobil under the agreement must spend at least $1 million on Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures or SPCC projects at its Baton Rouge complex and will fund beneficial environmental projects or BEPs totaling $1.029 million. The accord gives ExxonMobil deadlines and requires the company to keep DEQ up to date on how its settlement obligations are met.

In a separate penalty last August, DEQ fined ExxonMobil $61,912 for violations associated with a June 14, 2012 naphtha release at its Baton Rouge chemical plant. Naphtha contains benzene, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies as a human carcinogen. Residents near the plant said they suffered health ailments from the discharge.

The final agreement contains more than 40 pages of violations for chemical releases and spills and operational infractions dating to 2008. Back-to-back incidents occurred at times. Unauthorized refinery discharges reported by ExxonMobil, for instance, were almost monthly in some years, and were especially frequent in 2008--when they totaled at least six in May alone.

So what does the company say about the agreement? "ExxonMobil worked with DEQ last year to identify ways we can go beyond regulatory and permit requirements to continue to enhance our environmental performance going forward," Stephanie Cargile, the company's government affairs manager in Baton Rouge, said last week. "In addition to making direct penalty payments to DEQ, ExxonMobil will make donations to local non-profit organizations. ExxonMobil voluntarily identified several projects that would enhance the environment of neighborhoods near our operations." She said the company solicited input last year from neighbors and regulatory agencies--the East Baton Rouge Mayor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, DEQ and the state's Dept. of Natural Resources--to address community needs and supported their recommendations.

In terms of funding, the top four BEPs approved under the settlement are $400,000 for a Groundwater Reduction Project to trim the company's groundwater usage; a $250,000 donation to DEQ to improve its Early Warning Organic Chemical Detection System; a $100,000 donation to the East Baton Rouge Mayor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness/Local Emergency Planning Committee to implement the ExxonMobil North Baton Rouge Emergency Preparedness Initiative; and a $100,000 donation to Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge for weatherproofing and air tightening of homes, especially those next to ExxonMobil facilities.

What's the impetus for ExxonMobil to improve its practices in Baton Rouge? "The only part of the settlement that seems aimed at correcting problems and preventing future emissions is the $1 million for the Spill Prevention Control or the SPCC program," Anna Hrybyk, program manager at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in New Orleans, said last week.

SPCC is a set of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, implemented in 1973 and updated since then, to prevent oil spills. Refineries and other facilities are required to have oil spill prevention or SPCC plans.

"The SPCC plan is already a requirement of their permits," Hrybyk said. "So this is like giving Exxon back $1 million to do with as they please." The Bucket Brigade wants to take a look at Exxon's SPCCs. "We filed a public records request with DEQ, and Exxon has 60 days from finalization of the settlement on Jan. 9 to submit its SPCC to DEQ under our request," she said. "After that, I'm not sure how long it will take for us to get it."

Jean Kelly, DEQ spokeswoman, said that under federal requirements existing SPCC plans at ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge complex contain procedures, methods, equipment and other ways to prevent oil discharges from non-transportation facilities into navigable waters. SPCC Regulation 40 CFR Part 112 requires such plans. "The settlement agreement goes above and beyond this requirement by having ExxonMobil focus on its benzene storage tanks, since its spill occurred from a benzene storage tank, and to focus specifically on those tanks that contain greater that 20 percent benzene," she said. Kelly was referring to the company's June 14, 2012 benzene accident. Under the settlement, Exxon must improve benzene tank spill-detection and containment to reduce health and environmental risks, she said. The settlement's benzene-tank requirements exceed federal rules.

"But having an SPCC on file doesn't seem to do anything to prevent accidents at Exxon," Hrybyk said. "The company's Baton Rouge complex has the highest accident rate of refineries and associated chemical plants in the state, and averaged almost two accidents per week in 2012. And that was only what they reported." ExxonMobil doesn't always tell the truth about its accidents, she said, pointing to the company's June 2012 benzene spill. "According to DEQ's penalty worksheet for that violation, Exxon waited 52 hours before telling DEQ that over 31,000 pounds of benzene had leaked, not 10 pounds as the company initially reported."

Moreover, "the money allocated for the Local Emergency Planning Committee and Rebuilding Together isn't enough to improve environmental health in the area, given Exxon's frequent accidents," Hrybyk said. "How can you weatherize homes with $100,000 for 59,000 people living within two miles of the plant? That small amount is an insult to people living near the facility whose homes are not air tight."

Hrybyk said sheltering in place in less-than-air-tight homes is risky during leaks because chemicals seep into houses and become trapped there. "Some of these chemicals are heavier than air, causing adverse health effects, and they are particularly dangerous for children," she said. When plants in Louisiana have accidents that emit chemicals, nearby residents are usually ordered to shelter at home. Authorities say that keeps them out of smoke and harm's way.

In the settlement, Exxon also agreed to a $50,000 donation to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation for groundwater-conservation awareness in East Baton Rouge Parish; a $50,000 donation to DEQ to fund the agency's Expanded Age Distribution and Vehicle Population Data Project on emissions in Louisiana; a $29,000 donation to the Louisiana Foundation for Excellence in Science, Technology and Education, or LaFESTE, for the Baton Rouge Clean Air Coalition; a $25,000 donation to Baton Rouge Green Association Inc.'s NeighborWoods project near the refinery; and $25,000 payment to install a meteorological station at the company's Baton Rouge refinery complex.

Cargile said the company's BEP payments must be made within 60 days after the finalized agreement on Jan. 9. "The projects, of course, may take longer to implement," she said. "The settlement outlines timelines in which the BEPs and projects will be completed."

To read the settlement agreement and Exxon's Baton Rouge-area violations on the web, visit http://www.deq.louisiana.gov/portal/portals/0/enforcement/bep/pdf/ExxonMobil_Final.pdf

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