The Motiva refineries in Norco and Convent have agreed to a tentative settlement with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for hundreds of violations of the Clean Air Act.
The $500,000 settlement is an accumulated penalty for violations that occurred during the years 2003-2010. During that time there were 265 violations at the Norco facility (and more than 140 violations at the Motiva refinery in Convent) including the failure by Motiva to file the appropriate application for changes made to its Catalytic Cracking Unit (CCU) that resulted in more pollution being emitted into the local environment.
Motiva is accused of not going through a required review despite knowing that changes to the CCU would result in increased emissions.
In 2008 Motiva was found by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a chronically non-complying facility and put on an internal watch list for that organization.
In a statement released by Rochelle Touchard, communication manager at Motiva, the company took responsibility for the violations.
"Motiva Enterprises LLC has entered into a settlement agreement with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) to resolve environmental noncompliance issues at its Norco and Convent facilities," the statement read. "The issues, most of which were technical in nature and not release-related, were voluntarily reported to the LDEQ by Motiva between 2006 and 2010. All issues were self-reported to LDEQ by Motiva."
Even though most of the violations were not release-related, the settlement reveals that the plant exceeded the permitted levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds and sulfuric acid.
Anne Rolfes, founding director of New Orleans-based environmental group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said those increased chemical levels pose a danger to parish residents.
"Sulfur dioxide causes asthma, which is why it is so heavily regulated because it can cause asthma attacks and can lead to respiratory problems," she said. "The volatile organic chemicals include carcinogens. Thereís absolutely no question that their failure as identified in this report led to risky exposure for the people in St. Charles Parish."
Rolfes did said she was encouraged to see the state beginning the process to assess fines on Motiva.
"Itís a really belated step in the right direction," Rolfes said. "What this shows you is that the workers and the people in the parish have been living with these violations and the assaults on their health for almost a decade."
Rodney Mallett, communications director at LDEQ, said the settlement agreement was a long process that still is not over.
"We became aware of violations they had or that we deemed they had and thatís when we sent them the notice of potential penalty to get the legal ball rolling," Mallett said. "They had violations so we told them we were going to penalize them. We went to try to reach a settlement and thatís where we are."
Although some of the violations are nearly a decade old, Mallett said the agency worked with the plant throughout trying to get it into compliance before finally assessing penalties.
"We could get them in compliance with the permit and let them know weíre going to fine them," Mallett said. "Sometimes it takes a little while, plus we added additional violations throughout so thatís how we get there. Itís not a speeding ticket."
Mallett said the plant should be in full compliance now, but Rolfes said the fines should have been assessed a lot sooner.
"I would say it is a step in the right direction and that they need to process this stuff a lot faster," Rolfes said. "If we had a stronger culture of enforcement these violations wouldnít have happened to begin with. The fact that there were 265 just at Motiva Norco shows you that Motiva thought they were operating with impunity."
Included in the report are violations related to the company not obtaining permits, releasing chemicals in excess of their permit, leaks and oil spills within the plant and flaring incidences.
In echoing Rolfes remarks on a weak culture of violation enforcement, a Motiva worker who chose to remain anonymous said DEQ and Motiva do not accurately portray the significance of flaring incidences.
"During a flaring incident DEQ will send investigators out here to the fence line and the flare is an elevator flare and it was a windy day and the goop didnít come back down to ground level until the Metairie area somewhere. - by then it was diluted," the worker said. "Some of their thinking is the solution to pollution is dilution where the most important part is not letting it out of the pipeline over here to begin with."
Motiva is also accused of shoddy maintenance at the refinery.
The worker said the employees at the plant have been battling administration over safety at the site for the past few years.
"When the plant is up and running, if a piece of equipment is giving them trouble, like if they have a leak, they call a plumber to get the leak to stop it from leaking," the worker said. "Thatís supposed to be fixed on turnaround when the plant comes down for major overhauls. A lot of jobs get pushed to the turnaround phase. And then they let it go and itís a run around and you know they arenít going to fix it."
The worker said part of the problem of letting maintenance issues linger is due to the plant allowing contractors to bring in unlicensed workers.
"An issue we are having industry-wide is unqualified craftsmen in the maintenance group," the worker said.
As far as increased emissions are concerned, the worker said both Motiva and DEQ were to blame for not accurately portraying their significance.
Rolfes said it was clear that the decisions to let maintenance problems persist were from the top down.
"It is also important to note that these were management decisions that were being made and that it was hardworking people in the plants who had to carry out these bad decisions or who had to just stand by instead of getting the investment to repair units that were clearly broken," Rolfes said. "I imagine the workers all of this time have been living in fear and in a moral quandary because I am sure they can see all of the problems piling up."
The worker at the plant echoed Rolfes and said a lot of the deterioration at the plant was due to a cost-benefit analysis that often did not take into account safety first.
"The company and the staff people understand their raises are based upon staff evaluations," the worker said. "They want to look good for their boss and I understand that. Iíve got no problem with that, but Iíve got to do what is right for my people."
Rolfes said although $500,000 is not a lot of money for a multi-billion dollar company like Motiva, it may make them think twice before trying to go around the law in the future.
"You canít put a value on worker safety and you canít put a value on peopleís health. So that is priceless and irreparable," Rolfes said. "Every day Motiva and the other oil companies are taking a gamble that usually pays off that they can break the law and no one will know. We hope that this makes that gamble a lot less desirable."
In addition to the fine, Motiva is required to donate $103,876 to the St. Charles Parish Department of Homeland Security for the purchase of two low emission vehicles and donate $50,000 to DEQ for improvements to an early warning system that detects pollutants.
Mallett said the settlement still has to go through a few steps before it is finalized and that it could change depending on feedback from the public and the Attorney Generalís Office.
"Itís not official," Mallett said. "Itís out to public comment and the public has 45 days to comment and then the Attorney Generalís Office has 90 days to review and concur with the agreement so itís not really official yet."
A public hearing may be called on the settlement if a written request is made to the DEQ by 25 people, a governmental subdivision or agency, an association with 25 or more members who reside in the parish or if the DEQ secretary finds a significant degree of public interest in the settlement.
The public is encouraged to submit written comments to the DEQ at the Office of the Secretary in the Legal Affairs Division at Post Office Box 4302, Baton Rouge, LA 70821.
For more information, you may call the Legal Division of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality at (225) 219-3985.