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'Upsets': Chemical releases disrupt lives but rarely result in punishment

Kristen Lombardi /Center for Public Integrity

The 2,400-acre ExxonMobil petrochemical complex in Baton Rouge, La.

BATON ROUGE, La. — Shirley Bowman noticed the smell after 8 a.m. on June 14, 2012, her 61st birthday. In Baton Rouge, where the petrochemical industry dominates the landscape, foul odors resembling burnt rubber or propane are perennial. But this odor, caustic and potent, seemed especially foul — “like some sort of chemical,” she recalls.

Bowman found her daughter crying over a migraine. Her neighbors experienced headaches, dizziness, nausea. One family reported a toddler son coughing up phlegm; another, an elderly father collapsing on the floor. She soon suspected the cause: A leak of “steam-cracked” naphtha, a liquid mixture of volatile petrochemicals, occurring at the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge petrochemical complex a half mile away.

Four hours earlier, Exxon operators detected an odor in the East area tank field and discovered a “bleeder” valve on Tank 801 dripping naphtha into a sewer. The leaky valve dumped 411 barrels into the underground system, company records filed with the state show. The liquid traveled a mile before pouring into a separator pit, vaporizing along the way, and releasing tens of thousands of pounds of benzene and other toxic chemicals into the air.

What happened that day in Baton Rouge is one thread of a larger story about the often toxic, sometimes invisible releases emanating from oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities along the chemical corridor of Louisiana and Texas. Those unplanned emissions — known in regulatory parlance as “upsets” — are occurring more often than industry admits or government knows, according to more than 50 interviews with regulators, activists, plant representatives, workers and residents, and an analysis of tens of thousands of records by the Center for Public Integrity.

For many communities, these upsets have evolved into an unseen menace: They disrupt lives, yet the companies are rarely punished. In Texas, where activists have clamored for relief, state officials say enforcement efforts helped reduce the number of incidents by 6 percent; Louisiana officials cite an even steeper decrease, 41 percent since 2008.

Yet those numbers tell only part of the story. The mass of pollution emitted in Texas, the nation’s refinery hub, hit a five-year peak in 2011, the Center found -- so even as the number of reported events dipped, the amount of pollution increased. And, experts say upset releases are consistently underreported.

This hidden pollution can produce harm. Over the last five years, records show, upset events have yielded almost 4 million pounds of toxic air pollutants in Texas alone — the 189 chemicals deemed so harmful to health Congress sought to bring emissions under control two decades ago. That’s 2 percent of all upset emissions.

“These are a major public health threat,” acknowledges Larry Soward, a former commissioner at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, who served on its board from 2003 to 2009.

“Upsets” occur when equipment breaks down or production units are shut off, restarted and repaired; or, as regulations state, when there’s an “unavoidable” accident.

Under law, plant managers must notify officials when accidental releases exceed certain hazardous air thresholds, known in regulations as “reportable quantities.” In Baton Rouge, Exxon did this. Yet the figures it reported kept escalating.

At 5:10 a.m. that day, Exxon supervisors told the state the benzene leak would likely exceed the 10 pound reportable quantity. Within hours, they classified it “level 2,” barricading areas and monitoring the air. According to a call log, company officials found benzene levels “so high” bordering a rail yard, they advised the railroad “not to let anyone go through that area.” By 12:30 p.m., the company was testing 400 workers for exposure to the cancer-causing chemical.

The following day, Exxon reported that benzene emissions totaled 1,364 pounds during the leak’s first three hours. By June 20, it increased the number to 28,688 pounds. In its final report filed 60 days later, Exxon revealed the benzene total was actually 31,022 pounds. State regulators later deemed the leak “preventable,” issuing an enforcement order contending that Exxon “failed to provide notification of a change in the nature and rate of the discharge.”

The company, saying it accurately reported the release, is appealing the state’s order. While plant supervisors acknowledge the “large” leak, they say it didn’t threaten residents. Tests along the fence line showed “no community impact,” their records state; air sampling by state regulators back up the company.

“It was a large number. We regret that number,” says Derek Reese, Exxon Baton Rouge’s environmental manager. “But we believe we did an appropriate response to mitigate the impact.”

That’s little consolation to residents, like Bowman. “Everything seems to stop at that magical gate,” she says, motioning to Exxon’s South Gate adjoining her neighborhood. “But if you live here, you know. Chemicals are let out on you.”

Upsets plague plants, communities
The hazards extend far beyond Baton Rouge. In Texas and Louisiana, the vast number of plastics, power and gas plants provide an on-the-ground case study of a national problem.

Data collected by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, TCEQ, offer a rare window into this pollution peril; the state agency requires companies to report events online within 24 hours, as well as annual totals.

From 2007-11, just over 2,400 of the largest facilities across Texas spewed almost 180 million pounds of upset emissions, contamination on top of the 14.8 billion pounds of routine air emissions in that time. Nearly half the facilities experienced at least one event in that period, pumping out sulfur dioxide and other smog-inducing pollutants. The greatest concentration came in 2011: 58.1 million pounds.

The 20 biggest offenders — oil refineries and natural-gas plants in Kermit, Beaumont, Corpus Christi and beyond — account for more than half of all such emissions in Texas.

“It’s a lot of stuff,” says Neil Carman, a former state air pollution inspector who investigated upset events. Carman now heads the air program for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter, which has filed several citizen lawsuits targeting illegal emissions.

Industry portrays the discharges as an inevitable — and overwhelmingly harmless — byproduct of manufacturing. Regulators have encouraged this casual attitude, some experts say.

For decades, critics say, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulatory agencies have effectively ignored the emissions. Officials don’t count upset events in facility permits and compliance records, notes Kelly Haragan of the environmental law clinic at the University of Texas-Austin, because they “aren’t supposed to happen.” In August 2004, Haragan penned a 215-page report showing how easily facilities could get away with releasing more pollution than allowed by the federal Clean Air Act.

At times, she says, “It’s like having a whole other plant no one is even acknowledging.”

These incidents skirt normal pollution controls, instead venting into the atmosphere through flares and leaks. Plants can have scores of events a year, giving off a constant cloud of invisible pollution.

“A big dose of toxins are coming out of these facilities,” says Soward, the former TCEQ official, who now works for Air Alliance Houston, “and into fence line communities.”

The health effects are harder to measure; little research exists on the threat to residents. But recently, Dr. Mark D’Andrea, an oncologist at the University of Texas Cancer Center, began tracking 4,000 residents exposed to the poster child of all upsets — the “40-day Release” at the BP refinery, in Texas City, which belched 514,795 pounds of benzene and 20 other pollutants throughout the spring of 2010. Earlier this year, D’Andrea unveiled preliminary data showing the residents have “significantly higher” white-blood cell and platelet counts than their Houston counterparts. The data suggests BP’s release may have increased their risk of developing such cancers as leukemia, the doctor says.

In a statement, BP says it does “not believe any negative health impacts resulted from” its 40-day release. “To our knowledge, the University Cancer Centers’ pilot study does not support a claim for any plaintiff alleging injury from that flaring and has no relevance to those claims,” the company wrote, referring to pending litigation filed by 47,830 residents and workers against BP alleging health ailments caused by the release. D’Andrea has not been hired as an expert witness for either side in the case, but has testified in pre-trial discovery.

‘An invisible poison’
In Baytown, Texas, about 250 miles from Baton Rouge, ExxonMobil operates the nation’s largest petrochemical complex, replete with an oil refinery and two chemical plants. The mass of stacks, tanks and pipes spans 3,400 acres on Houston’s ship channel, looming over blue-collar neighborhoods nestled in its shadow. In Harris County, a manufacturer’s Mecca, Exxon’s refinery tops all 155 upset emitters, spitting out 3.8 million pounds’ worth from 2007 to 2011. 

Here, residents describe fiery flares that have rattled windows, belched black smoke and cast a sooty substance on the ground. At times, they’ve unleashed a thunderous boom, “like an Air Force fighter jet,” says Shae Cotter, who lived across a highway from the complex. He remembers the sound jolting him from sleep at 3 a.m. Occasionally, he videotaped flares aglow like celestial globes, flames ballooning toward his home.

Read the full report by The Center for Public Integrity

The Exxon complex ranks among the state’s biggest upset emitters involving carcinogens and noxious gases. Top chemicals include hydrochloric acid, 1,3-butadiene and benzene, toxins that can trigger skin irritations, respiratory problems, neurological disorders and gastro-intestinal diseases.

In a statement, ExxonMobil Baytown says it has worked with regulators to “greatly” reduce emissions. “We are proud of the overall reductions we have made,” the company wrote. Since 2000, Exxon notes, it has decreased total emissions at the Baytown complex by more than 50 percent. The company declined to provide similar statistics for the facility’s upset emissions. “ExxonMobil is committed to continuously improving the environmental performance of our Baytown Complex,” the company said.

Since December, the Baytown facility has set off a wave of upset emissions. One, triggered by a tripped compressor in the refinery’s Booster Station Four, pumped out 114,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide in 18 hours. It was the 20th upset recorded there by company reports.

“Exxon is emitting all of these day after day,” says resident Marilyn Kingman. “Anybody who lives in the Baytown area is suffering.”

Smells drive some homeowners inside. Stuart Halpryn, whose house sits a quarter mile from Exxon, says he tried to adapt to the odors, along with the runny noses and allergy-like symptoms that he believes the odors caused. That changed in February 2009, when he says a valve leak at the refinery sickened his family. His four children suffered from such severe indigestion, he says, they missed school for a week. Later, he learned from reading Exxon’s report the leak had unleashed 17,432 pounds of six different toxic chemicals.

“Nobody really understands what’s being dumped on them,” says Halpryn, who moved his family to Kentucky in June. “It’s an invisible kind of poison that’s being rained down.”

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org

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