St. Charles Parish’s lone air monitor did not register high levels of emissions during the most recent prolonged flaring incident at the Shell/Motiva campus in early December, according to Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality officials.
While industry in the area have their own air monitors, the only one controlled by the government is located in Hahnville. That air monitor only measures emissions through ozone levels. The Hahnville monitor was set up in the 1980s and is part of a regional and statewide system that measures general pollution.
Although the monitor measures general air quality, it does not break emissions down by type.
Emissions such as sulfur dioxide and benzene are sometimes released during flaring events and can have health impacts on the those in communities close to the emission sites. Sulfur dioxide can make it more difficult for those with respiratory ailments to breathe and benzene is a known cancer causing agent.
An EPA mandated air monitor that measures the most comprehensive levels of pollutants is located in Baton Rouge, where ozone levels have historically exceeded EPA regulations. There are also other monitors around the state that test for cancer-causing pollutants and sulfur dioxide.
Those monitors are much more sophisticated than what is provided at the Hahnville site.
"That would be a whole other instrumentation and that is more complicated to measure," Mark Sather, an environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, said.
Sather said because the air monitor in St. Charles Parish has not experienced ozone readings outside of that allowed by the EPA on a regular basis, the agency has not required more in-depth testing in the area and they instead rely on the LDEQ and internal emissions testing from local plants.
Tim Knight, administrator of the assessment division of LDEQ, said it is much less costly to send out an emergency response team during prolonged flaring incidents than to have permanent air monitors that would accurately record the presence of pollutants that have health impacts.
"If we wanted to monitor all of the volatile organic compounds in the parish, we would have to set up a permanent air monitor in every direction of every plant in St. Charles Parish. We simply don’t have the resources to do that," Knight said.
In his role at LDEQ, Knight handles emergency response and permanent air monitoring throughout the state.
"When we get the call that something has happened we send our local guys out there with the handheld monitors. If we can we mobilize the mobile air monitoring lab (MAML), we send that too," Knight said. "I think that is more than adequate."
In the most recent flaring incident at the Shell/Motiva campus, LDEQ officials said the MAML, which monitors air levels at a higher standard than handheld monitors, did not come onto the scene until the fourth day of flaring because it was undergoing maintenance.
Flaring at the campus occurred at that time due to two issues. First an ethylene line went down and caused heavy black smoke and reports of a bad smell in the area. The second problem was an electrical outage that was repaired within a day.
LDEQ officials said the flaring only occurred for six days while the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a New Orleans-based environmental action group, said it was ongoing for ten days.
Knight said the flaring in itself was not a significant event, however, EPA officials said any prolonged flaring would be considered a significant event.
"Basically if there is a flaring event and they exceed this they have to submit a root cause to the federal agency," Esteban Herrera, chief of the toxics enforcement section under the compliance assurance and enforcement division at the EPA, said. "We are required to review them, identify if it has been repeated, if it has been done before and if the cause of the flare has happened before."
In the past decade, Shell/Motiva has been fined three times following these types of investigations for a total of $18,480.
Herrera said the fines are central to four main issues of compliance: leaks and leak detection, the amount of benzene released, if the pieces of equipment that are often malfunctioning at the plant cause a lot of pollution and excessive flaring.
Under those four determining factors. Shell/Motiva was found to be a chronically non-compliant industrial site in an internal list held by the EPA that was revealed last year.
In addition to the EPA’s fines, at the end of 2012 Shell/Motiva agreed in principle to a settlement of $500,000 with the LDEQ for various violations over the past decade including not disclosing the construction of a piece of plant equipment that would exceed emission standards.
Herrera agreed with Sather and Knight that permanent air monitors measuring pollutants outside of a general ozone reading were not necessary and that ozone monitoring was sufficient because, in addition to the site in Hahnville, five other monitors are located in and around the New Orleans area.
EPA officials said should those monitors pick up higher ozone levels, more complex air monitoring for harmful emissions may be called for such as exists in the Baton Rouge area.