The Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) says that a majority of the residents they surveyed who live near the Shell/Motiva complex complained of health issues due to flaring at the plant.
According to reports from the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center, unknown amounts of butadiene, hydrogen sulfide and benzene, a known carcinogen, were released as a result of an equipment malfunction at Shell and a later power failure that resulted in increased flaring from Dec. 2 until Dec. 9.
A group of fourteen canvassers from LABB surveyed 103 people on Friday, Dec. 7. According to LABB, 71 of those residents reported respiratory irritation, headaches and eye or skin irritation.
In addition to those surveyed by LABB canvassers, 72 reports were made to LABB’s iWitness pollution map. LABB officials said the map is meant to allow for more commenting on industrial incidents such as the flaring.
Despite the reports, it is unclear how closely related the health concerns the residents voiced were due to the ongoing flaring at Shell/Motiva.
Anna Hrybryk, spokesperson for LABB, said talking to area residents and taking online reports is not purely scientific.
“It’s anecdotal evidence. We’re not doing a random sample controlled double-blind study here. We are doing basic anecdotal evidence,” Hrybryk said. “These are the types of reports that emergency response agencies should value because usually they counter the industry claim that everything’s fine.”
Hrybryk said in some cases that the emissions may have aggravated preexisting conditions such as cold or flu in some of the survey’s respondents.
“The thing is that hydrogen sulfide is a respiratory irritant, so it’s going to aggravate whatever you’ve got,” she said. “If you’ve got a cold it may last for longer than what it normally does. It is harder to recover from a cold if you have been exposed.”
Officials from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said they could not comment on LLAB’s reports.
“We haven’t seen the survey and we don’t know how they conducted it so we can’t comment on that,” DEQ public information officer Jean Kelly said.
Peter Ricca, DEQ manager of emergency response, said area residents who think they are experiencing health effects due to emissions should contact health professionals.
“What we always encourage people to do, if they feel any health effects, is to immediately talk to their personal physician and let them know what is going on,” Ricca said. “Because if they are exposed to benzene they can have them draw a blood or urine sample immediately.”
DEQ officials said they sent emergency responders to the area with handheld air monitoring devices the day after the flaring started and that a more sensitive mobile air lab monitoring (MAML) unit was deployed three times during the flare’s duration. In addition, DEQ officials said air monitoring by Shell/Motiva, third-party contractor TES and a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency all found that emission levels where beneath harmful levels.
“At no time with all those different parties sampling did we ever detect levels of concern. The flare was working – it was doing what it was intended to do,” Tom Killeen, a DEQ administrator in charge of inspections, said.
However, Hrybryk claims that DEQ did not send out the MAML until a few days before the flaring ceased entirely.
“DEQ needed to be out there with their low-level testing equipment Sunday through Tuesday,” she said. “What bugs me is that they make a statement assuring public health, but it’s based on incomplete evidence.”
Killeen said deployment of the MAML unit was delayed because it was undergoing maintenance. He said the MAML arrived two days after the elevated flaring began.
Throughout the flaring, Killeen said that hydrocarbon levels were recorded at elevated levels only a few times, but they could not definitively be connected to the plant.
“We did get a couple of hydrocarbon hits real close to Airline Highway and they were low enough that is was hard to know whether it was exhaust from vehicle traffic or something that may have been beyond the fence line,” Killeen said. “But they were low enough that there was no way we could confirm them coming from the facility or the flare.”
DEQ officials said at no time were area residents exposed to dangerous levels of emissions.
Hrybryk claims that up until Friday, Dec. 7, DEQ placed emergency responders in the area with handheld air monitors that are not sensitive enough to pick up air pollution levels that can have negative health effects on area residents. She said those handheld devices only measure contaminant levels in parts per million not parts per billion.
“Health standards are in the parts per billion,” Hrybryk said. “That is when you can start to smell it and feel an immediate effect is at those lower levels.”
Ricca disagreed with Hrybryk’s claim and said while exposure limits to benzene in water is higher, air exposure limits are measured in the parts per million.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists standards, the permissible exposure to benzene is 0.5 parts per million, whereas the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health puts acceptable exposure levels at below 0.1 parts per million.