ExxonMobil is operating the United States' second-largest refinery with hundreds of corroded pipes, a record of overdue inspections, noncompliance with its own procedures, and a series of internal failures and leaks, an Environmental Protection Agency report shows.
The 48-page report documents conditions found during an EPA inspection last summer just after the accidental release of more than 50,000 pounds of toxic chemicals at ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge Refinery in Louisiana.
EPA's inspectors found that some of the refinery's pipes lacked minimal wall thickness.
A heavily blacked-out (redacted) version of the EPA report was released to a Louisiana environmental group in December, but a newly obtained version of the original details the government's full findings about conditions at the plant, which was built in 1909.
The EPA's original, uncensored inspection report, dated Nov. 5, describes a century-old facility operating with "heavily corroded" pipes; 1,000 uninspected underground pipes carrying flammables and hazardous materials; equipment with deficiencies "outside of the acceptable limits"; pipes that lack minimal wall thickness; leaks that were not reported; inadequate compliance audits; and more.
Those findings and others were blacked out before the inspection report was released to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in December. The group, which works with communities impacted by the oil and gas industry, obtained the uncensored original Feb. 6 after making a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
The source of the redactions was not immediately clear.
In January, an ExxonMobil spokeswoman said the company had made the redactions because the information was proprietary.
"The portions of the report that were redacted protect the confidential business information that allows us to operate a safe business," ExxonMobil Public Affairs Officer Jennifer Hughes wrote Jan. 14 in an email to The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
However, in an email late Tuesday (March 5), ExxonMobil spokeswoman Rachael Moore referred PaintSquare News to EPA, saying "they authored the report and chose the redactions."
The EPA could not immediately be reached for comment.
In their report, EPA inspectors noted a variety of corrosion issues at the refinery.
Chemical Release, Surprise Inspection
According to the EPA report, refinery personnel discovered a leaking bleeder plug about 4:35 a.m. June 14, 2012. About 30 minutes later, the refinery notified Louisiana State Police of the valve release.
Refinery personnel told police that the release had exceeded the "reportable amount" but that the facility did not consider the incident an emergency release. Later, managers told EPA that they had not calculated how much was released and "did not want to alarm or set off a panic."
By July 20, ExxonMobil submitted the total release data to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The company said the release involved:
Meanwhile, representatives from EPA and its contractor, Eastern Research Group Inc., conducted an unannounced inspection of the refinery during the week of July 16 to 20.
It was not clear whether the timing and location of the inspection were related to the chemical release.
EPA's report said that the inspection had been "preselected at the beginning of the fiscal year as one of Region 6's high-risk facilities," noting the refinery's large amount of flammables, toxics, and receptors.
An ExxonMobil spokeswoman disputed the EPA's characterization of various refinery pipes as "heavily corroded."
The EPA's report, completed four months after the inspection, reported "instances of piping, valve, and vessel corrosion" and included examples of "corrosion that was pervasive in the area."
The report also included numerous areas of concern that had been blacked out (redacted) before being released to the environmental group. Among the findings blacked out:
A May 2009 carbon monoxide release from a covered process sent nine people to the hospital with possible exposure.
The refinery had not inspected 1,000 underground pipes with liquid and gas flammables and a variety of hazardous chemicals in the previous five years.
The refinery had more than 249 overdue underground piping inspections with "no historical records to know the integrity of these pipelines to date."
Underground piping inspection records reviewed by the lead inspector "showed the pipes to be heavily corroded."
Company records showed out-of-date pipe inspections.
Refinery work orders on inspected equipment noted deficiencies "outside of the acceptable limits."
Other details blacked out noted that internal company audits from 2007 and 2010 did not identify 1,518 lines that were not inspected or mitigated; 253 lines found with "less than minimum thickness"; or 57 lines that had ruptured or leaked upon excavation.
Also redacted were findings that company compliance audits had not provided "the appropriate technical procedures and practices" and had not mentioned "the lack of process safety information (PSI), the failure to conduct underground piping inspections, and the corrected delayed deficiences."
The blacked-out document also included a list of EPA-cited incidents involving failures of mechanical integrity and operating procedures.
The report specified no enforcement action.
ExxonMobil spokeswoman Lana Sonnier Venable told The Times-Picayune that the description of the piping as "heavily corroded" was incorrect.
Moore told PaintSquare News that all of the refinery's piping components "are secured and maintained to industry standards."
"Our operations integrity management system (OIMS) specifically address the requirements of our mechanical integrity program, and, as EPA's report notes, the Refinery conducts more than 80,000 inspections on fixed and rotating equipment annually."
Moore said ExxonMobil had reviewed the inspection findings and was "sharing additional information which we believe may resolve many of the areas of concern identified in the report. Where we can't reach agreement, we will follow EPA's dispute process."
"Safety is a core value for our company, and we have continuously improved our safety performance over the past five years," Moore wrote.
She said the refinery developed a comprehensive plan in 2006 to improve underground piping facilities.
"The refinery has invested $20 million in this improvement project," she said. "The project is approximately 90 percent complete with final completion scheduled for this year. In addition, note that the complex currently utilizes an extensive mapping program that we apply to our offsite pipelines."
Louisiana Bucket Brigade
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which successfully pressed for the release of the original report, is a nonprofit environmental health and justice organization that works with communities neighboring Louisiana's oil refineries and chemical plants.
The "bucket" is an EPA-approved air sampling device that people can use to document pollution in their neighborhoods.
"Until corporate leaders are held accountable for actions taken and not taken to protect workers and the community, these infractions will continue," the group said of the ExxonMobil report.
"We repeatedly see companies paying their fines without correcting the situation. It is time for management to be held accountable for their reckless behavior and to be put in jail for breaking health and safety laws."
Baton Rouge Refinery
ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge Refinery is the largest private employer in the parish and the second-largest manufacturing employer in Louisiana.
ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge Refinery was built in 1909 and refines more than 300 products. More than 2,200 employees and contractors work at the site.
The 2,100-acre Baton Rouge facility refines more than 300 products. More than 2,200 employees (many represented by the United Steel Workers) and contractors work at the plant.
Constructed in 1909, the facility is the second-largest refinery in the United States, occupying 2,100 acres and processing more than 502,000 barrels of crude oil daily, according to the EPA.
ExxonMobil also owns and operates the adjacent Baton Rouge Chemical Plant, which is covered under a separate Risk Management Plan from the refinery.