Sulfur Emissions from Exxon Mobil Leak Harmful to Human Health By Michael Patrick Welch

Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Louisiana Weekly

(TriceEdney Wire) – A leak in one of Exxon Mobil’s sulfur recovery units in Baton Rouge, La. last month resulted in the release of various chemicals harmful to human health, including benzene, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide, claims Exxon’s report to the National Response Center.

The Advocate reported that employees rerouted the May 22 gas leak into an incinerator, but the incinerator lacked the capacity to recapture the sulfur dioxide, leading to a temporary increase in sulfur dioxide releases.

“Expedited repair work on the Exxon Baton Rouge Refinery’s environmental control equipment is complete, and the environmental control equipment (TCGU) is back in service,” stated Jennifer Hughes, Exxon Mobil Public and Government Affairs in an email last week to The Louisiana Weekly. The refinery was issued a temporary permit for increased sulfur emissions during repairs. “Through?out the repair period the refinery operated within its interim daily permit limit for SO2.”

Exxon Mobil officials said the repair work did not at all affect the facility’s ability to fulfill supply contracts to customers. However, the accident may cost the surrounding community quite a bit.

Though air monitoring at 14 sites around the facility began early this month by the DEQ and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the refinery has yet to provide a complete report on the accident. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s Accident Response Team (ART), however, has been keeping up with the leak’s effect on the nearby Standard Heights neighborhood, and in a door-to-door survey conducted May 30, 74 percent of 92 residents surveyed (all African-American) reported a health impact, from nausea and headaches to eye irritation and respiratory problems. The Bucket Brigade has posted its findings online, along with its iWitness Pollution Map, where local residents continue to report what they believe to be leak-related ailments.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is an environmental health and justice organization helping to promote informed, sustainable communities, free from industrial pollution. The Bucket Brigade’s ART is a group of trained workers who knock on doors in neighborhoods during and after oil industry accidents to document the impacts of chemical emergencies.

Hughes doubts the group’s finding: “[Exxon Mobil] regularly advertise a neighbor hotline that folks call with concerns or questions about our operations. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality also has a similar community call line,” she says, adding, “No one from the community called either line during the incident. In fact, the EPA, the LDEQ and Exxon Mobil all separately conducted monitoring in the community during the incident to ensure air quality. “

Still, there’s no denying that Exxon Mobil’s Baton Rouge refinery is one of the largest and most troubled in the nation, with supposedly the highest accident rate in Louisiana – no small feat in the 107-mile stretch of 156 industrial refineries between Baton Rouge and New Orleans referred to often as “Cancer Alley.” According to the Bucket Brigade, between September 2010 and September 2011, more than 3,700 oil industry accidents occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The Baton Rouge plant has reported several benzene leaks just in the last year, including one in June of 2012 that resulted in the release of 31,000 pounds of benzene in Baton Rouge.

That’s just what’s reported: According to an EPA report procured by the Bucket Brigade in February 2013, Exxon Mobil’s Baton Rouge Refinery failed to inspect hundreds of corroded pipes and report several incidents in the last five years. The Examiner has gone so far as to publicly accuse Exxon Mobil of direct human rights violations.