Shell Chemical equipment failure causes flame and flares in St. Charles

By Juliet Linderman, December 3, 2012.  Source: The Times-Picayune

Photo: Diya Chacko/nola.com

Photo: Diya Chacko/nola.com

For more than 30 hours, Shell Chemical, located on the Motiva Enterprises campus in Norco, has been experiencing elevated flares, shooting flames and leaking thick black smoke into the air above St. Charles Parish. According to a report submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center, the plant is releasing unknown amounts of hydrogen sulfide, butadiene and benzene, a known carcinogen.

Shell Chemical reported the incident to the NRC at approximately 8 am on Sunday, Dec. 2, citing no deaths or injuries associated with the accident.

According to Department of Environmental Quality Press Secretary Rodney Mallet, an unknown unit within the plant sustained damages, and Motiva has opted to send the chemicals typically routed to the damaged unit to a flare to be burned, rather than shutting the unit down altogether and rebooting it. The quantity of chemicals being funneled to the flare, as well as anticipated emissions, are unknown at this time. Neither DEQ nor NRC has specified whether the material is coming from Shell Chemical or Motiva.

Renee Allemand Simpson, public information officer for St. Charles Parish, said the flare does not pose any significant danger to Norco residents.

“There are no protective actions necessary,” she said. “It’s not something we’re asking people to do anything for; in this case, of a flaring incident, we want people to know that we are aware, and that we’re monitoring it, and we ask residents to do the same.”

Motiva Communications Manager Rochelle Touchard said Norco residents who failed to notice the flare during preparations for the town’s Christmas parade Sunday were notified at approximately 10:30 am on Sunday morning, via a new online messaging portal Motiva rolled out about a month ago to automatically send notification messages to residents, and the emergency operations center, in the event of a plant accident.

“As you have noticed we are experiencing elevated flaring with heavy smoke due to an operational disruption here at the Norco Manufacturing Complex (Shell/Motiva),” the message read. ” We are working to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.”

According to Touchard, the flare, which began bellowing black smoke and shooting flames into the air very early Sunday morning, is a mitigation measure; although it may look serious, she said, the flare itself serves as a method of harm reduction.

“It’s not a problem; when you flare, it’s a safety mechanism,” Touchard said. “I would not categorize a flare as dangerous. It’s an operational upset, and the way to relieve that is to flare; the flares are safer than the alternative.”

Flares occur when an accident, system upset or operational interruption–a leak, unplanned loss of power or equipment damage, for example, that results in the release of chemicals–occurs within a plant, and the facility is unable to process material as it normally would. Instead, these materials are funneled to a flare, then burned.

Mallet echoed Touchard’s point, adding that flares are often used as “emergency avoidance measures, to make sure emissions are minimized. That’s what’s happening here.”

But according an annual report released by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade on Monday morning, Motiva has ignited a flare at least five times in the past nine months, which has resulted in the emission of 40,228 pounds of carbon monoxide in March; 25,826 pounds of carbon monoxide in August; and 29,547 pounds of sulfer dioxide in September.

Motiva, which is a joint venture between Shell and Saudi Aramco, has more than 600 full-time employees at its Norco facility, and processes roughly 250,000 barrels of crude oil into fuel and gasoline each day. In 2000, EPA inspectors discovered numerous leaks of benzene and other hazardous toxins at Motiva’s Norco plant. A subsequent investigation uncovered multiple Clean Air Act violations, as well as Clean Water Act violations at the refinery’s wastewater treatment plant.

“If you go into Norco and talk to people about this flare, it’s a really strange experience because they think it’s normal,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade at a press conference on Monday. “There is obviously an immediate threat from these accidents that we experience, and people can die. But there’s a pernicious ongoing long threat, which is for people all over Louisiana who live next to these refineries, but specifically in this case, people who are next to a release of benzene, which is a known carcinogen.

“Today they may not have any problems, and tomorrow they may not have any problems,” she continued. “But eventually, the effects of this exposure can be felt, and that’s the problem.”

As of 3 pm on Monday, Motiva continues to experience elevated flares in Norco, and cannot predict when they will cease; the Louisiana State Police and the Hazardous Materials and Explosives Control Unit have been notified, as well as several environmental agencies. State Police Captain Doug Cain said steam has been applied to the flare stack to lessen the amount of smoke in the area.

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