[StBernard] Murphy Oil seeks to add 4 storage tanks

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Jul 2 11:19:49 EDT 2007

Murphy Oil seeks to add 4 storage tanks

Posted by By Paul Rioux, St. Bernard bureau July 01, 2007 8:25PM

Murphy Oil is seeking state permission to add four massive storage tanks at
its Meraux refinery, part of a clean-fuels project company officials tout as
a classic win-win situation: Less pollution from vehicle tailpipes and lower
emissions from refinery smokestacks.

But the request is drawing opposition from skeptical environmental groups
and local residents still reeling from the million-gallon oil spill at the
refinery in Hurricane Katrina's wake.

"Murphy has already expanded recently. During Katrina their oil spill
expanded right into people's homes," said Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana
Bucket Brigade, an organization that helps residents monitor air quality
around refineries and chemical plants. "They have a lot of nerve to expand
again while people are still suffering."

Laura Coleman, who lives in the 2100 block of Despaux Drive, a block from
the sprawling refinery, was among nearly two dozen residents who attended a
recent state Department of Environmental Quality public hearing on Murphy's
request to renew and modify a permit to move forward with the project.

"I don't think they should be allowed to add more tanks until they can
ensure the ones they have are safe," Coleman said.

"That's all we're asking," added Karen Harden, Coleman's sister and
next-door neighbor. "If they can't control what they have now, why give them

Refining issues

The sisters are members of Concerned Citizens Around Murphy, a group formed
in May to air concerns about the refinery, as well as address other
neighborhood issues, such as speeding and crime prevention.

Coleman said the group wants to take a non-confrontational "neighborly"
approach to dealing with the refinery.

"We don't want to fight them. We don't even want to meet with them if we
don't have to," she said. "We just want them to be better neighbors and to
make sure they're doing everything necessary to keep us safe."

Carl Zornes, a Murphy spokesman, said the four proposed 250,000-barrel tanks
would be located north of the refinery's existing tanks.

He said the tanks would be equipped with spill controls, including earthen
dikes, in compliance with federal regulations that established a
spill-prevention plan for the refinery in 1973.

When Katrina hit, the refinery met all the requirements of its plan, which
had been updated in 2002, Zornes said. Overseen by the Environmental
Protection Agency, the anti-spill plan "does not require facilities to
prevent inundation from catastrophic flooding," he said.

Zornes said the clean-fuels project is being driven by an EPA mandate to
reduce the sulfur content of diesel fuel from 50 parts per million to 15
parts per million.

In addition to adding storage tanks to hold the ultra-low-sulfur fuel, plans
call for replacing gas-fired compressors with electric ones to reduce
nitrogen oxide emissions. The refinery also would build a fourth sulfur
recovery unit to provide an extra layer of pollution control, Zornes said.

"These modifications will result in better air quality for everyone," he

Murphy claims suspect

Denny Larson, national coordinator of the San Francisco-based Refinery
Reform Campaign, said he supports the goal of cleaner fuels, but questions
whether the project will reduce emissions at the refinery.

"If you reduce the sulfur content of the fuel, where does it go?" he said.
"It gets pulled out in the refining process and there's a real danger that
it will be released into the air."

He said the refinery's claim that emissions will decline isn't adequately
supported in the company's permit application and is based on a comparison
with emission levels in 2001 and 2002.

"They're using data that's more than five years old," he said. "If you
cherry pick your baseline data, it's easy to show a decrease in emissions."

Murphy officials said the 2001-02 baseline years were chosen because a key
piece of equipment was damaged in a fire and was not functioning from 2003
to 2005. The post-Katrina period isn't long enough to serve as a baseline,
which requires two consecutive years of operation.

The massive spill at the refinery came after Katrina's floodwaters lifted a
storage tank off its foundation and moved it more than 30 feet, causing a
million gallons of oil to leak into surrounding neighborhoods.

The refinery agreed to pay $330 million to settle a federal class-action
lawsuit involving an estimated 6,500 property owners and renters affected by
the spill. So far, the company has bought 356 homes in a four-block radius
of the refinery and is tearing them down, Zornes said.

"We have no current plans for this land except to create an initial buffer
zone," he said. "We will know more after we see how many homes are

During previous disputes about air quality and noise in neighborhoods
surrounding the refinery, Murphy supporters pointed out that the refinery
was built in the early 1960s and predates most of the homes.

Good neighbors

While many residents are selling to Murphy, Harden said she bought her house
in the shadows of the refinery four months ago because it was affordable and
was next door to her sister, who helps care for her 15-month-old son.

"I knew that I was moving next to a refinery and that there would be some
drawbacks," she said. "But I still expected it to be livable."

Harden said she often takes her son inside when she notices a foul odor from
the refinery, which towers above a six-foot-high privacy fence in her

Rolfes said the Bucket Brigade recently monitored the air in residential
areas near the refinery and found potentially dangerous levels of benzene, a
known carcinogen.

During the most recent test June 26, air samples taken during an 80-minute
period on Jacob Drive showed an average benzene reading of 5.83 parts per
billion, said Rolfes, noting that this is above the state's 3.76 parts per
billion standard for yearlong exposure to benzene.

"This shows they can't control their current operations, so they shouldn't
be allowed to expand," she said.

Zornes said refinery officials declined to comment until they have received
the Bucket Brigade's raw data from the test.

Officials with the DEQ have not announced a timeline for deciding whether to
approve the refinery's permit request.

Societal contribution

Similar expansion requests by Murphy Oil, and Chalmette Refining a couple of
miles to the west, have typically not generated broad opposition in St.
Bernard, which has the feel of a company town, where many blue-collar
workers value the refineries as a source of well-paid jobs and a strong
economic engine in the parish.

Zornes said the refinery employs 550 people and has a $1.2 billion annual
impact on the local economy based on a 2004 study by Janet Speyrer, director
of the division of business and economic research at the University of New
Orleans. After Katrina, Murphy Oil donated $5 million to local government
and charitable entities to help with recovery efforts.

Coleman said she doesn't dispute that the refinery makes positive
contributions to the community.

"I just want to make sure public safety is at the top of the list," she

Asked what the refinery should do to protect nearby residents, Coleman added
a post-Katrina twist to the old adage that good fences make good neighbors.

"I'd like them to build a 30-foot-high levee or floodwall around the
refinery. That ought to contain the spills and noise," she said with a
laugh. "Hey, a girl can dream."

Paul Rioux can be reached at prioux at timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3321.

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