Sierra Club exxposes Huge Exxon Propylene Leak at Baytown

Company Says Leak May Have Spewed 50 Tons, Lasted Eight Weeks

HOUSTON – ExxonMobil has reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that preliminary data show a leak at the company’s olefins chemical plant in Baytown, Texas, released 108,400 pounds of propylene. Propylene is a highly reactive volatile organic compound (HRVOC) that has a high propensity to form ground-level ozone.

“The Houston area is having another bad ozone season with 20 high ozone days already as of June 7, which is way ahead of the 2009-2010 pace of smog days in Houston. So the report of a possibly huge release of an ozone precursor like propylene comes as unwelcome news for the health of people in Houston,” said Dr. Neil Carman, a chemist and the Clean Air Program Director for the Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club. Nineteen of the 20 high ozone days occurred during the 8-week period that Exxon reported that propylene was leaking.

photo by Jessica Rinaldi of Reuters

Exxon filed the initial report on the State of Texas Environmental Electronic Reporting System (STEERS), which companies use to report so-called “upsets” at industrial facilities. According to a review of STEERS reports by Sierra Club and Environment Texas, a 108,000 pound release is likely the largest pollutant release in a single upset event reported by Exxon’s olefins plant dating back at least six years.

According to Exxon, a “tubing leak” was discovered on June 2, 2011, and was “isolated” within 30 minutes. However, according to Exxon, “preliminary process data indicates that the 6/2/11 tubing leak may have been occurring since 4/12/11.” Under TCEQ rules, Exxon has two weeks to finalize the STEERS report and correct any information on the initial report.

“If the Baytown complex leaked 50 tons of smog-causing air pollutants over an eight-week period, Exxon has a lot of explaining to do,” said Luke Metzger, Executive Director of Environment Texas.

The STEERS report for this upset also indicates that the release was “not specifically authorized” and the emission limit for propylene from the tubing was “0.0” pounds per hour.

ExxonMobil reported the leak just days after a federal court rejected the company’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit against it and two subsidiaries brought by Sierra Club and Environment Texas alleging thousands of violations of the Clean Air Act at the nation’s largest oil refinery and chemical plant complex, in Baytown. According to the groups’ lawsuit, millions of pounds of pollutants have been released in these violations.

In its motion to dismiss the environmental groups’ lawsuit, Exxon unsuccessfully argued, among other things, that the case should be thrown out because its violations are not “ongoing.”

Sierra Club has approximately 24,000 members in Texas moving Beyond Coal and Beyond Oil to build a clean energy future to protect human health and natural resources.

Environment Texas advocates for clean air, clean water, and preservation of Texas’ natural areas on behalf of approximately 5,000 members statewide.


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