A death occurred at the Chalmette Refinery on October 6 during an attempt to repair a leak of hydrogen sulfide, according to St. Bernard Sheriff’s office. A 33 year old contract worker, Gregory Starkey, of Roseland, collapsed and then died while working at the facility. Starkey was employed by TEAM Industrial Services of Harahan near New Orleans. The website for TEAM Industrial Services indicates the company specializes in industrial leak and valve repair, emission control, and other services related to mechanical and piping systems.
Exxon Mobil Corporation is the managing partner in charge of operations at the 196,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) Chalmette Refinery which is a 50-50 joint venture between Exxon and PDVSA, Venezuela’s national oil company. According to Exxon spokesman Kevin Allexon, the monitored hydrogen sulfide concentrations were not at levels considered harmful. Also, Exxon was “actively mitigating” odors from the leak. According to State Police, the hydrogen sulfide gas leak is considered contained rather than completely sealed pending delivery of a part. However, the leak was being monitored and believed to have no affect on offsite air. Nonetheless, both the leak and the fatality are currently under investigation.
The leak was first documented two days prior to the fatality and two days after had been contained but not yet completely sealed according to Louisiana State Police. As per Trooper Melissa Matey, the delay resulted from the need for a part to be delivered in order to completely seal the leak.
A spokesman for the State Department of Environmental Quality, Rodney Mallet, commented that the hydrogen sulfide was not detected at harmful levels. However, even exposure to small concentrations can result in shortness of breath and eye irritation. Additional low dose exposure symptoms include nose and throat irritation. Exposure symptoms at higher concentrations may result in long-term and even permanent headache, diminished attention span, poor memory, and poor motor function as well as death.
Also of concern is a Labor Day accident which occurred at the same refinery wherein nineteen tons of spent catalyst rained down on an adjacent neighborhood in the form of a white powder dusting houses and vehicles. As the refinery only initially reported one ton being released, the public has been skeptical of the company and its facility. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a local volunteer group which focuses on environmental issues including industrial pollution, has noted the time frame of accidents. Their director, Anne Rolfes, observed that the issue was a leak that had existed prior to the accidents and had only been fixed by putting a clamp on it, which then began to leak.
Given that just a few breaths of air containing high concentrations can be fatal in combination with the worker’s death, Exxon appears to be underreporting the level of hydrogen sulfide leaking during the fatal incident. The wide variety of people affected by these recent refinery spills should consider speaking to an attorney about their legal rights given the potential for current and future harm to the health of those near the incident. Whether last year’s Hahnville leak or the Chalmette incidences, rights exist for those who have been affected by failures on the part of these facilities to keep the public safe.