Emissions of Baton Rouge’s Exxon plant, which produces 517,00 barrels of oil a day, have hit a peak of 350 pounds per hour, Reuters reports. That plant is around 5 miles from my home — they don’t call this Cancer Alley for no reason. It should be noted that this is the same Exxon plant that had an explosion last year. Many witnesses, including myself, heard the boom, but then state officials claimed that no such explosion happened and that it was just a fire.
The independent test was conducted in January 2020 by an engineering firm that Exxon hired to demonstrate its regulatory compliance. However, it’s not really complying. The emissions averaged to around 255 pounds per hour during the test, which exceeds the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s (LDEQ) limit of 234 pounds of particulate matter per hour. This is actually one of the highest limits in the nation, and other similarly sized refineries in Louisiana have a state soot emissions limit closer to 50 pounds per hour.
Since the Exxon refinery’s two catalytic crackers, which would have to be shut down for several weeks in order to have maintenance performed on the scrubbers, were built during World War 2, they are exempt from federal EPA standards. The fix, Exxon is concerned, could cost above $1 billion.
Reuters interviewed Seabell Thomas about the matter. Seabell is 77 and her home is separated from the refinery by Interstate 110. She said that her son’s asthma was so bad that he would visit the ER often as a child. The refinery is over a century old and the neighborhood it borders has very high rates of childhood asthma.
“When I wake up each morning, I have to confront two demons: pollution from the highway and the Exxon refinery,” Thomas said. “We, as Black people, ask, ‘God, how long can you allow this? Please, give us good air to breath.’”
Her daughter, Sonyja Renee Thomas, grew up thinking that asthma was something that African-Americans often get. “I grew up thinking asthma was an African-American disease because so many kids in the neighborhood had inhalers,” she said. “Only later, as an adult, did I realize how much pollution factored into it.”
According to a 2019 report by the Louisiana Health Department, childhood asthma rates were more than double the statewide average. The report included a group of census blocks that included Thomas’ home. It also noted that emergency room visits for childhood asthma in the area were more than double the statewide rate.
ExxonMobil Is Dirtier Than Its Competitors
The article also pointed out that ExxonMobil’s U.S. oil refineries pump out far more lung-damaging soot than its competitors, especially in Louisiana. The firm’s three largest refineries, two in Texas and one here in Baton Rouge, are the nation’s top three emitters of particulate matter. That information comes from an analysis of the latest tests submitted to regulators by the nation’s 10 largest refineries.
Altogether, the three Exxon refineries averaged emissions of 80 pounds per hour, which is 8 times the average rate of the other refineries on the top 10 list. Some of those are larger than Exxon’s plants. The top polluter, of course, is the one that is five miles from my home — averaging, according to this analysis, 138 pounds of particulate matter per hour.
Oddly, many of Exxon’s rivals are using technology that was invented and licensed by Exxon to control their soot levels, according to disclosures by Exxon and environmental regulators. BP, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66, and Valero Energy Corp made promises to the EPA to slash emissions below federal standards. In the case of Marathon, its refinery in Garyville, LA, uses an Exxon scrubber that has undergone numerous upgrades since being installed in 1979.
The refinery’s permit limit is 0.6 pounds per 1,00 pounds of burned coke, which is below the EPA limit of one pound. Also, that permit limit was set by the state. The plant, which is slightly larger than Exxon’s Baton Rouge plant, recently found that its small particulate matter emissions were 0.11 pounds during its latest test.
Jamal Kheiry, a spokesperson for Marathon, spoke of what the low numbers meant for emissions controls. “The low emissions numbers reflect robust emissions controls we have implemented,” Kheiry said.
Exxon Has Political Clout As A Major Employer
Not only is the plant located in the state’s capital city, but it’s a major employer here for many residents of Baton Rouge. Sidney Poray, who has lived near the refinery for almost 30 years, has worked with activist groups to monitor the refinery’s emissions. However, he’s not optimistic that their work matters. “Of course, I care about pollution,” Poray said. “But what am I going to do? We’re talking about Exxon.”
The other day when I was at the state capitol building advocating for EVs and clean energy, one of the conversations I had was about the gas and oil industry as a job creator. The gentleman told me that if we do away with the industry, all the jobs will vanish. The idea that Exxon along with other industry giants is the only job provider here is prevalent in this area. People are scared to stand up for their right to clean air because they don’t want to lose what they believe is their only way of surviving.
The truth is that Exxon just doesn’t want to invest the money into cleaning up its emissions. Wilma Subra, a scientist who formerly served on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and is based here in Louisiana, explained this to Reuters. She pointed out that the performance shows the firm’s inadequate spending to cut emissions.
“Exxon has all the resources in the world to lower its pollution rates dramatically,” she said.
The Reuters piece is enlightening, to say the least. I think I’ve been in the hospital 3–4 times more for asthma since moving back home to Louisiana than when I lived outside of the state. In fact, I recently just got over bronchitis — and since I’ve been social distancing and staying home, I really haven’t been anywhere to catch a cold that turns into bronchitis. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor, but what I do know is that the air here is toxic.
People are always sick, and those who live closer to the refinery — especially the Black neighborhoods there — suffer the most. Exxon doesn’t care about any of us — it just wants to make money and wield its political power over our lawmakers. And moving isn’t an option for me or others. Running away never solves anything anyways.
Featured photo of the I-10 Horace Wilkinson Bridge in Baton Rouge by Johnna Crider.
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