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Exxon Refinery Catches Fire Day After Government Settles Over Pollution From Other Gulf Plants

Energy
Exxon Mobil refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Julie Dermansky

Early morning skies Wednesday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, were alight from a fire that started around 2:30 a.m. at an ExxonMobil refinery. The blaze, though contained before the sun came up, is a reminder to the surrounding community of yet another danger of living next to refineries and chemical plants.

Exxon's refinery is located along the stretch of Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as "Cancer Alley" due to the high number of chemical plants and refineries—and illnesses possibly connected to emissions—along the river's banks.


Exxon issued a statement to CBS affiliate WAFB while the fire smoldered, saying the community was not impacted by emissions from the refinery fire and that air quality readings were "below detectable limits."

Mary Lee Orr, executive director of The Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), questions the possibility of making such a determination so fast. Her group has been working with Cancer Alley communities, helping to reduce their exposure to pollution from the area's oil and petrochemical industry.

Exxon's Baton Rouge refinery is adjacent to one of the company's eight facilities named in a settlement reached with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) and announced Oct. 31.

Last year LEAN filed a lawsuit against an Exxon chemical facility in Baton Rouge, next to the refinery that caught on fire Wednesday. That suit alleges the facility has been violating the Clean Air Act by failing to report pollution releases correctly. Lisa Jordan, director of Tulane University's Environmental Legal Clinic and representing LEAN in this case, said it is too early to say how the recent agreement between the federal government and Exxon will impact their own case. Jordan said LEAN's case encompasses a broader range of issues than those in the one recently settled.

According to the DOJ, the settlement "resolves allegations that ExxonMobil violated the Clean Air Act by failing to properly operate and monitor industrial flares at their petrochemical facilities, which resulted in excess emissions of harmful air pollution."

It requires Exxon to install and operate air pollution control and monitoring technology to reduce air pollution from 26 industrial flares at five facilities in Texas and three in Louisiana, at a cost of about $300 million. In addition, the company must pay a civil penalty of $2.5 million.

Some environmental groups have described the fines as a slap on the wrist, but LEAN'S technical adviser Wilma Subra believes the settlement is substantial. "The amount of money to be spent on air pollution improvements is a positive step in the right direction," she told me.

However, Subra is concerned that the air pollution monitoring devices in the agreement will only monitor benzene, which is known to cause cancer. In her view, Exxon should be required to monitor a whole host of other potentially harmful chemicals it is emitting.

The instances of pollution cited in the recently settled suit do not include emissions from any of Exxon's Texas facilities affected by Hurricane Harvey. Subra pointed out that the pollution incidents at Texas refineries and chemical facilities following the hurricane show that industry has no method for controlling pollution when hurricanes hit, something she hopes industry will change soon.

Exxon's Baytown, Texas, operation was among the eight industrial facilities included in the recent settlement. It was also one of the plants that reported pollution releases due to Hurricane Harvey. In this case, the refinery's roof sank due to the storm's heavy rains, which resulted in the release of hazardous gases—including volatile organic compounds and benzene above permitted levels, according to the New York Times.

Or also sees the agreement between Exxon and the Trump administration as a positive step toward protecting Cancer Alley communities. But "sadly, in the short term, the agreement won't help the community," she told me. "It will take time to implement the new pollution reduction devices."

And though EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt stated that "this agreement shows, EPA is dedicated to partnering with states to address critical environmental issues and improving compliance in the regulated community to prevent future violations of the law," the agency under Trump has been racing to undo its previous work. Recently Pruitt announced a measure to repeal former President Barack Obama's EPA policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, a plan Trump's EPA has concluded would have substantial health benefits.

Furthermore, a list of potential names for the agency's Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee includes a sizable increase in industry representatives and consultants, as reported by the Intercept. On that list are two scientists who have worked for Exxon, indicating the oil and gas giant could have greater influence over EPA science and policies in the future.

Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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