Faced with a federal mandate to explain the potential community impact of a major refinery disaster, Chalmette Refining LLC officials have decided to go a step further: They’re going to share their findings with the public seven months before they are due to regulators.
Next week, the refinery will mail brochures spelling out disaster scenarios to residents of St. Bernard Parish, Algiers and nearby communities on the West Bank. While the brochures and forthcoming town meetings may scare people, refinery officials said they want the chance to answer questions before the information hits the Internet in June.
“With this information being available to the public and being broadly shared by a variety of organizations, we felt it was imperative that we have the opportunity to tell our own story,” said Sandy Duhe, the refinery’s public affairs adviser.
An amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1990 requires all plants that use certain toxic or hazardous substances to explain what would happen if a major leak occurred in a worst-case scenario and in a more realistic scenario for the community. About 66,000 plants nationwide must submit this data to the Environmental Protection Agency by June 21, said Cheryl Hochstetler, EPA spokeswoman. Once the federal agency has the material, it becomes public and can be disseminated in many forms, including news stories and on the Internet.
Refinery officials say they’re convinced an early release of the information will help allay fears.
St. Bernard Parish Fire Chief Tommy Stone said the EPA is asking for something that will, no doubt, scare the public.
Stone said he thinks it would have been more productive for the EPA to require disaster planning and emergency response training based on the type of industrial accidents that are more likely to occur instead of unlikely catastrophic events. Stone said he has a tentative list of seven industries in St. Bernard Parish that are expected to file the disaster reports, including Chalmette Refining, Murphy Oil USA and the parish government’s Water Division.
In the brochures, Chalmette Refining explains what would happen if the refinery were to have a major leak of either hydrofluoric acid or liquified petroleum gas.
The liquified petroleum gas scenario assumes that a 2-inch hose transferring the gas breaks and causes an explosion. Most likely, that explosion would break glass and cause damage in neighborhoods surrounding the refinery.
The hydrofluoric acid scenario assumes that a 3-inch hose transferring the acid breaks, creating a dangerous vapor cloud that would affect people up to a third of a mile from the refinery. In the affected area, people could have difficulty breathing, burning eyes, nasal passage and throat irritation, and an irritated or burning sensation of the skin. For those suffering from chronic illnesses, the effects could be more severe. People with extreme exposure to the acid could die.
Although the EPA is addressing concerns that such information could be misused by terrorists, the agency thinks it is important for the public to know the potential threat that hazardous chemicals present.
“It’s one way of ensuring that these plans have been formulated and circulated,” Hochstetler said. “I think it’s very positive. EPA is just really committed to getting information to people and I just think it’s real important that people know what’s going on in their back yard.”
She said this is just the first step to ensuring public safety.
“You can’t plan for a disaster until you know what it is,” Hochstetler said.
Duhe said community groups that want to discuss the disaster plans can call her at 278-1377 to set up a 45-minute presentation, which will include a 13-minute video and question-and-answer session.