15 November 1999 00:00 [Source: ICB Americas]By Don RichardsEnvironmental Protection Agency's Region 6 office in Dallas is warning 11 chemical plants and refineries in Texas and Louisiana to curb exceptionally high releases of hazardous materials caused by accidental spills.
EPA officials met recently with facility personnel to encourage the plants to address such spills. The agency is acting because the 11 sites are said to account for about half of the releases from accidental spills throughout the five-state Region 6 area, even though the region contains thousands of plants.
In Texas, EPA has cited five plants: Dow Chemical Company at Freeport, Valero Refining Company at Corpus Christi, Chev-ron Chemical Company at Port Arthur, Diamond Shamrock Corporation at Sunray, and Lyondell/Equistar Company at Channelview.
Louisiana facilities under EPA's watch include Cytec Industries at Westwego, Exxon Corporation at Baton Rouge, PPG Industries Inc. at Lake Charles, Shell Chemical Company at Norco, and Motiva Enterprises at Convent.
In addition, Motiva's Norco refinery is participating on a voluntary basis because its operations are closely tied to the site's chemical plant. Motiva is a joint venture among Shell, Texaco and Saudi Aramco.
Reportedly, EPA used findings on incident records dating back five years from 1998 as a basis for its concerns about the plants. Air emissions are involved as well as spills on land and water.
According to Jerry Clifford, deputy regional administrator of the EPA in Dallas, who was at a meeting of an agency-sponsored panel in New Orleans on November 4, "These facilities have a problem, and that's why they've been singled out."
EPA officials say that accidental spills are common when a plant shuts down to avert a disaster, such as a boiler explosion. A chemical plant or a refinery may also open a relief valve if a tank becomes overpressurized.
The agency notes that because such releases are accidental, they are not counted when regulators check a plant's emissions against its permit, even though emissions of many of the discharged chemicals are explicitly limited.
This problem accounts for why certain plants emit high levels of toxic chemicals yet stay within their permitted discharge levels. EPA regulations allow plants to exempt emissions during startups, shutdowns and malfunctions, though the government requires plants to keep such releases to a minimum.
For example, Exxon Chemical's Baton Rouge plant flared a large amount of ethylene last week during a restart after routine maintenance. The company notified the appropriate regulatory agencies.
"A facility can be operating in complete compliance with its permits, but the excess emissions during these upsets could still be creating a problem at the local level," Mr. Clifford says.
Environmentalists say EPA should treat such emissions like all others. They note that accidental releases are of particular concern because they can spew large amounts of chemicals into the air in a short time.
The companies cited by EPA have had publicized problems. Late last year, a community meeting about accidents at Shell Chemical's Norco plant drew representatives from EPA, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Greenpeace and local environmental groups.
A January 5 ammonia leak at the Cytec plant, which sent some neighbors to the hospital, spurred residents in Jefferson and St. Charles parishes to sue the firm for unspecified damages.
PPG's plant at Lake Charles has long been under EPA scrutiny. Last summer, the company prevailed in a long-standing lawsuit which charged that chlorinated hydrocarbons from the plant caused a decline in the populations of local fisheries, undermining the livelihoods of fishermen (CMR, 8/9/99, pg. 6).
The 11 plants pledge to work with EPA to reduce spills. Spokeswoman Vicki Derese at Chevron Chemical's Port Arthur facility notes that the site has reduced its TRI emissions by 61 percent since 1993.
Dow Freeport spokeswoman Tracie Copeland says her company plans to reduce the air and water emissions from its global operations by 50 percent for chemical emissions and 75 percent for priority compounds.
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