Excessive flaring was reported at the Shell/Motiva campus as a result of an equipment failure followed by a power failure, but some Norco residents who live near the refinery say they are not worried about the incident.
The elevated flaring, which caused the release of permitted levels of emissions, lasted for a week from Sunday, Dec. 2 until the plant fixed a faulty piece of equipment and returned to normal production on Sunday, Dec. 9.
Representatives of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), a New Orleans-based environmental health organization, canvassed the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the Shell/Motiva campus on Friday, Dec. 7.
Bianca Marie, an LABB canvasser, said most residents in the area did not report any health issues related to the flaring.
"We are told we are troublemakers, that nothingís wrong and that no one has any health symptoms and if they did they would know because they have been living here their whole lives and they are just used to it," Marie said.
LABB canvasser Zubaid Karimov said at the time they had only received one complaint from a community member who complained of a headache.
According to a report later released by LABB, out of 103 people surveyed in the area surrounding the plant†71 reported immediate health impacts. †
However, several parish†residents said the plants were here first and that the flaring did not concern them.
Gina Caillouet, of Destrehan, said she is used to the flares and smoke because she was raised in Norco.
"If people donít like it, oh well. The plant was there before a lot of people were. I had no choice when I was little on where I lived. Now I do," Caillouet said. "So if you chose to move there or stay there then get used to the flares, the smoke and the noise."
Lori Duplessis agreed.
"Shell has flared since its existence. Thatís what a refinery is supposed to do," she said. "Itís kind of like choosing to live in south Louisiana but complaining about the heat and humidity."
Marie Guillot said that the plants and refineries in St. Charles Parish provide millions of tax dollars that go to schools, roadways and the hospital while providing job opportunities for thousands of residents.
"Flaring is a safety measure to protect you and the equipment being used in the plant. Without flares, things would explode and the really dangerous stuff would be released to the atmosphere," Guillot said. "When a power outage or some other upset occurs and you see flaring, thank God that the system is working properly. A big flame, some smoke and noise is much better than the alternative."
Toby Petit, who is an operator at the plant, echoed Guillot. He said the company does not want to flare because it means a loss of money.
"We donít flare because we want to, we flare because we have to," Petit said.
But others who live around Shell/Motiva did express concerns about the elevated flaring.
"I think we all know whatís going on and have had enough," Susan Simoneaux said. "Itís not normal, itís not healthy, itís not right. Something has to be done and now."
Paige Duhe, of Norco, said she is worried about the malfunctions at the plant, the possible pollution coming from it and is afraid to take her newborn child outside.
"If the elevated flaring does not have you worried for your childrenís safety and your own then Iím sorry for you," Duhe said. "These plants are becoming more and more unsafe. I feel as though we are not getting the whole story and Iím just waiting for the plants and all of Norco to blow."
Jarrett Shelton, of Destrehan, said he was worried about the possible health impact of the emissions.
"No telling what kind of medical issues we are going to face later on in life," he said.
Rodney Mallett, communications director at Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), said the elevated flaring began early last week when an ethylene compressor malfunctioned at the plant.
"The flaring is a control device meant to minimize air emissions," Mallett said. "So what they are doing currently is sending a product line to flare to burn off."
The flaring then escalated when an electrical outage was reported at the plant on Dec. 6.
In a statement released following the power outage, Shell/Motiva reported increased flaring due to the power outage was separate from the equipment malfunction.
"We are working with Entergy to restore power to the affected substations as quickly as possible. This unit upset is separate from the issue that caused elevated flaring earlier this week," the statement said.
Later that afternoon, the company released a statement saying that they had resolved the power outage issue.
According to reports from the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center, unknown amounts of butadiene, hydrogen sulfide and benzene were released as a result of the equipment malfunction.
Hydrogen sulfide is known to be potentially harmful to those with respiratory ailments, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and benzene is a known carcinogen.
Mallett said the emission levels recorded by LDEQ did not have any health implications.
"The flare is actually doing its job," Mallett said. "Itís burning off everything it is supposed to.
"The levels we have seen are below evacuation levels and below any type of long-term or short-term health risk levels."
Mallett said LDEQ placed a mobile air monitoring lab at the site to record emissions and that a third party contractor working with Motiva/Shell was also monitoring emissions.
However, Mallett said it was his understanding that when black smoke is released from the flare, rather than white or no smoke, that it means more emissions are escaping the burn off procedure.
Throughout the flaring incident, the smoke released was reported at times to be a very dark black.
Attempts to correct the equipment failure were ongoing until Dec. 8 when Shell/Motiva reported the malfunctioning unit had been fixed and flaring was back to normal.