Flare incident at Shell raises questions


May 17, 2012 at 10:13 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Intense flaring and plumes of smoke that occurred over a two-day period at Shell Chemical at the Motiva Enterprises facility in Norco last week have been blamed on a storm that resulted in a mechanical breakdown.

Shell reported an unexpected release of chemicals and flaring at the Norco plant Tuesday evening at 7:09 p.m., which was not secured until 11:30 p.m. Wednesday night, according to officials with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

In a report to the National Response Center Shell Chemical said the flare was due to a loss of function in a "CO heater" during a storm, which resulted in a "shake up" in the "steam load shed." The report also said part of the plant was shut down following the incident and an unknown amount of chemicals including butadiene, benzene, carbon monoxide, ethylene, hydrogen sulfide, propylene and sulfur dioxide were released into the flare.

Officials at Shell said they recorded no impact to the environment after the release.

"No environmental impact to the community has been identified based on fence line monitoring at the facility," Rochelle Cancienne-Touchard, Manager of Communications and Social Performance Manager said in a statement sent via email. "Shell Chemical LP has not been notified of any reports regarding ill effects from the flaring."

Tim Beckstrom, Public Information Officer with LDEQ Quality, said that Shell reported emissions of hexane and catalyst may have exceeded an allowable level.

Officials with LDEQ said they sent an Emergency Response Team to the scene Wednesday morning who swept the perimeter with monitoring equipment. The Emergency Response Team member reportedly did not pick up any signs of elevated chemical exposure during monitoring at the plant’s perimeter.

"Someone did not come out that night because it is not an emergency. A flaring event in itself is not an emergency," said DEQ Emergency Response Manager Peter Ricca. "A flare itself is not an emergency. As a matter of fact when the flare is burning that’s a good thing. What the flare does is it burns off anything untreated that would be released into the atmosphere. Flares are 99 or 98 percent effective."

Ricca also said the plant is allowed to have a certain amount of permitted emissions.

Anne Rolfes, founding director of the environmental health and justice organization the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said the monitoring only takes into account immediate hazards, but not long-term exposure to smaller amounts of toxins such as Benzene that are known to cause cancer.

"What they are mostly trying to find out is if there is such an intense problem that people should be evacuated immediately," Rolfes said. "That’s the kind of monitoring they are doing and that is really important to know. It doesn’t answer questions about exposure."

Former Norco resident Iris Carter said she was in the area visiting relatives when she was overcome by smoke from the flare that was reported as being as high as 40 feet at times and visible from up to ten miles away.

"It was emitting a lot of black smoke in the air and made me cough and made me nauseous. It was really disgusting," Carter said.

Rolfes also said the reported accident rate at Motiva Enterprises in Norco is unacceptable and the community should expect more.

"The bottom line is that they have had 174 accidents over a six-year span which is about two a month. There is an accident problem there," Rolfes said. "The facility should be maintained to a level that they don’t have an accident happen that creates a problem for days."

According to LDEQ, Shell Chemical will now be required to submit an incident report showing whether allowable levels of chemical emissions were exceeded or not.

"They are going to have to put a letter in the mail that is postmarked, which describes the event, not their opinion of the event but what they’ve gathered from their process of the event, just letting us know what has happened," Beckstrom said. "And then we’ll put that on file and it ultimately goes on our system which is for public view."




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