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A spill of condensate water from the flare system at the ExxonMobil Chalmette Refinery was the likely cause of the odor that wafted over the city on Wednesday, prompting hundreds of residents to report smells of burning tires and oil, according to the Coast Guard.
The refinery quickly reported and stopped the leak, but it remains unclear exactly what chemicals — or how much — may have been released.
“The leak was contained to a unit at the refinery,” Coast Guard officials said in a statement Thursday. “Air monitoring was initiated immediately upon discovery, and all monitoring throughout the incident has indicated no detection of (sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide or volatile organic compound) emissions immediately beyond the vicinity of the leak source or at the fence line.”
Confusion over the kinds of chemicals involved in the spill resulted from the refinery’s initial report to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center on Wednesday, said Petty Officer Jason Screws, the incident commander for the accident.
ExxonMobil first reported releasing 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and 10 pounds of benzene, a volatile organic carbon compound known to cause cancer, because those amounts are the minimum required for reporting, Screws said. But the company has since said it is unsure exactly what chemicals were involved or how much may have been released, he said.
The spill occurred as a result of a break in a pipeline connecting a drum used to store “liquid flare condensate,” with a flare on the refinery site, Screws said. He said the company measured 160 parts per million of hydrogen sulfide and 2 parts per million of benzene in the air at the site of the spill, but has not seen similar readings at the plant’s fence line or in the neighboring community.
“The odor threshold for these chemicals is very low,” Screws said. “You can smell it a lot sooner than (when) the concentration is enough to be harmful.”
Screws said that both ExxonMobil and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality are continuing to conduct air monitoring at the plant’s edge and in other locations as cleanup continues.
A version of the report filed by the refinery that appeared online Thursday said that an unknown amount of wastewater leaked onto the ground from the “Number 1 flare drum” at the refinery at 7:08 a.m. It did not say what chemicals, if any, were present. Reports to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center are not placed on its web site until the next day, according to a center spokesman.An ExxonMobil spokeswoman said the liquid would be better described as “condensate water from the flare system.”
At 4 a.m. Wednesday, an unknown caller reported to the National Response Center a chemical or tar type smell at numerous locations across the area. Several 911 dispatchers and fire departments also started getting reports.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s IWitness web site also received several dozen reports of the odors. Brigade director Anne Rolfes renewed the environmental group’s criticism of DEQ for not creating an adequate system of air monitors to track the sources of such odors.
“It is surprising that we don’t know the source over 12 hours after the first reports were filed,” she said Wednesday. “We need an overhaul and an upgrade of the state’s skimpy and inadequate air monitoring network. A decent air monitoring network would help officials to locate the source of the odor automatically, rather than having to drive around looking for it.”
The Bucket Brigade has been sharing information with the Coast Guard incident command as it has been collected on the IWitness web site, but Screws said the group is not a participant in the incident command center.
The National Ocean Service’s Incident News web site reported Wednesday that the Coast Guard contacted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials on Wednesday after residents reported “funny chemical smells” throughout the greater New Orleans area.
“(Coast Guard and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality) personnel began interviewing citizens early this AM and searched for a source of chemical release,” the report said. “Active air monitoring led personnel to investigate of a facility in Chalmette (6 miles ESE of French Quarter, New Orleans, LA). The facility reported a leaking flare drum with hydrogen sulfide and benzene being released. USCG is request air plume modeling to determine if the two cases are linked.”
In its Thursday news release, the Coast Guard said the refinery has worked with DEQ and Coast Guard response teams “most of the day to survey and evaluate all potential sources of odors in the area, including at the refinery. In addition, a Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew conducted overflights of the affected area Wednesday afternoon.”
The release also included a statement from the refinery:
“We apologize to neighbors for any inconvenience this leak incident may have caused,” said Chalmette Refining, LLC, Janet Matsushita, manager. “The health and safety of neighbors, community, and employees are our top priority.”
Several units at the Chalmette Refinery have been shut down since February for a “turnaround” construction project that is employing 500 workers, but the refinery is still operating. A recorded message on the refinery’s telephone said that flaring was likely to occur at the site during the construction project. A flare was operating on the site on Wednesday. The company spokeswoman said the spill has not affected production at the refinery.
In January, neighbors of the Chalmette refinery along St. Bernard Highway complained that drops of crude oil from the plant had splattered their cars. DEQ officials said that the refinery had a 36-barrel spill, but an ExxonMobil spokeswoman said Saturday that the incident involved the release of 100.19 barrels of crude oil.
The refinery also is operating under a federal consent decree that requires it to comply with the Clean Air Act and reduce emissions, especially flaring events.
On March 15, the company filed a report of its compliance with the decree during the last six months of 2012 that noted 10 incidents in which it violated the pollution limits, including an outage caused by Hurricane Isaac.
The incidents included the release of 1.93 tons of sulphur dioxide on July 2; the release of 1,076 pounds of sulphur dioxide on July 29; the release of 33.63 tons of sulphur dioxide between Aug. 27 and Sept. 3 during Hurricane Isaac; 1.85 tons of sulphur dioxide on Sept. 10; 1,063 pounds of sulphur dioxide on Oct. 26; and 2.22 tons of sulphur dioxide on Oct. 30 and 31. Most of the releases were prompted by the failure of pressure safety valves or other pieces of equipment. One was caused by a loss of electrical power. The releases during Isaac were the result of the shutdown of the refinery in advance of the storm, and then its restart after the hurricane cleared the area.
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