Sunday, March 26, 2006

Houston Chronicle: Exxon Spill In Houston Got Slow Response; What Can Niger Delta Victims Expect?

When U.S.- and European-based multinational oil companies like Exxon, Chevron and Shell are charged with polluting the landscape in the Niger Delta, many international observers are quick to excuse the giants from responsibility.

Frequently, the rebels who have assaulted and kidnapped workers and regularly destroy pipelines or siphon oil from them are blamed, and often they are indeed the obvious culprits.

But as an article in the Houston Chronicle today demonstrates, that is not always the case. The paper lays out the tale of a spill on Jan. 23 that coated a Houston-area neighborhood near a leaking Exxon facility in Baytown with a thin cloud of oily residue - enough that when neighbors went to open their cars, their hands slipped off the handles. Obviously, it was in the air and by then, probably in their lungs. What was it? Could it kill them?

At 2:48 p.m. in the afternoon, a resident called the right federal hot-line and filed a report to state and federal authorities. Although eight copies of the report instantly went out to as many agencies, the response was agonizingly slow. Not until Wednesday did an inspector come out to the neighborhood to see what the fuss was all about.

What started out as an exercise in citizen activism for which authorities had created a path for citizens to reach responsible officials - and should have been a model for emergency response - turned out too much like Katrina. There was too little, too late, and despite the well-laid plans the result was a human disaster.

In telling that story, the Houston Chronicle today perhaps sheds light on light on what the company's typical response to pollution incidents really is - in the United States, that is.

But what of such spills in Nigeria? Among the mangrove swamps and grassy wetlands that are home to millions of Africa's poorest people, there is no Internet access. There are no well-organized crews at the ready to perform hazmat duties as there are in Houston. There is no easy route to top public officials. There are few who can read and write well enough to communicate complex issues, and fewer still who will listen.

The point? Perhaps the multinationals like Exxon who do business in the Niger Delta bear more of the responsibility than they have admitted for the profoundly polluted Delta region. If they can get away with a lackadaisical attitude in suburban Houston, what can they get away with in a remote mangrove swamp 6,000 miles away?

Meanwhile, study for a moment the opening words of this article, from Britain's respected The Guardian last year:

Revealed: how oil giant influenced Bush
White House sought advice from Exxon on Kyoto stance

John Vidal, environment editor
Wednesday June 8, 2005
The Guardian

President's George Bush's decision not to sign the United States up to the Kyoto global warming treaty was partly a result of pressure from ExxonMobil, the world's most powerful oil company, and other industries, according to US State Department papers seen by the Guardian.

The company had the power to stop the most important international treaty of our time, one that is intimately tied to future weather patterns and especially the destructive hurricanes like Katrina that are partly fueled by earth-warming combustion of Exxon's fossil fuels.

Exxon's power - and that of the other oil giants - actually threatens the entire world, as outlined in a frightening cover story that breaks tomorrow in Time Magazine. But what citizen of the world, and what world institution, actually has the power to resist the corrupting influence of a company that pockets $36 billion in profits in a single quarter?

Meanwhile, it seems to have no compunction about defrauding even the U.S. states where it operates. In this report from the BBC, look at what an Alabama judge said about Exxon:

Friday, 4 May, 2001, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
Exxon fined $3.4bn for 'fraud'

A judge in the US has upheld a $3.4bn (£2.37bn) fine against Exxon Mobil, the world's largest oil company, for deliberately underpaying natural gas royalties to the state of Alabama.

"Exxon engaged in egregious, intentional fraud by which it sought to deprive Alabama of hundreds of millions of dollars, probably well over $1bn," an Alabama Circuit Court judge wrote in an order signed on Thursday.

"Exxon has shown no contrition or even changed its royalty payment calculation. Only a substantial punitive award can punish Exxon and deter it and others," the judge added.

Moreover, Exxon has even defrauded its own hard-working gas-station owner-operators:

Supreme Court decision may lead to Exxon dealers' profit
South Florida Business Journal - October 12, 2004

With the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to decline to accept Exxon Corp.'s appeal of class certification in a $1.3 billion class action case brought by its dealers, certain Exxon dealers may soon receive an average $130,000.

At a February 2001 trial in Miami federal court, attorneys for the class said they proved to a jury that Exxon overcharged its service station owners for the wholesale price of motor fuel for 11 years and then fraudulently concealed the overcharges.

The suit involved 10,000 current or former dealers who owned or operated Exxon service stations between March 1983 and August 1994 in 34 states and Washington, D.C.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed the verdict and orders of the trial court.

If a well-heeled American state like Alabama and its own dealers have to struggle mightily to keep Exxon from stealing them blind, if they can block important treaties with a word to their friends in high places, how does a community of largely illiterate, culturally unsophisticated and dead-broke activists deal with a giant like Exxon after it has polluted its landscape, used its influence to eliminate their leadership, and resolutely defrauded state and local governments of oil royalties?

It's not just a problem for the Niger Delta's Bayelsa State or the State of Alabama. How much more would it defraud the corrupt governments around the world? And what can anyone do about it?

I'd hope that readers today would look at the Houston Chronicle's story in that context. Here it is:

March 26, 2006, 3:52AM
Flawed response to Exxon spill exposed
When a neighbor reported leak, no help came

The Houston Chronicle

For six years Felicia Joseph lived beside one of the nation's largest oil refineries — and not once did she complain about pollution.

"It's like living near a bakery," said the 34-year-old hairdresser. "You know you are going to smell baked goods. You pretty much know what you are up against."

But when she awoke Jan. 23 to find her Baytown neighborhood shrouded in an odd gray mist and her car covered with so much oil her hand slid off the door handle, Joseph called for help.

No one came.

A Houston Chronicle investigation shows that Joseph's call to a federal hot line at 2:48 p.m. that Monday — more than 14 hours after oil began leaking from the Exxon Mobil refinery next door — spawned a series of e-mails and telephone calls that traveled from Washington, to Dallas, Austin, and Houston. Within minutes, eight different federal and state agencies received copies of a report that said an unknown oil, likely from the refinery, was all over cars at the Archia Courts public housing complex.

Yet, not one public official arrived in the neighborhood until Wednesday morning. And that was only after Exxon — which initially reported that the spill had been contained on site — disclosed to the state Tuesday night that the leaking substance had left the refinery premises.

Using public records and interviews with various federal, local, state and company officials, the Chronicle pieced together a chronology of the incident to determine who knew about the spill and when.

The chain of events exposes serious flaws in the local and national systems put in place to respond to oil and chemical spills that have the potential to threaten public health or the environment.

Chief among them is that the laws governing what is reported to the National Response Center leave room for a spill like the one in Baytown to be missed. Moreover, the bureaucratic maze of overlapping state and federal reporting systems, coupled with a lack of personnel to review the reports, makes it easy for a complaint to get overlooked, as Joseph's was.

Such problems are of critical concern in Texas — home to the most industrialized corridor in the United States — and Harris County, where more spills occur than anywhere else in a five-state region.

The Chronicle's analysis also clearly demonstrates that Exxon knew the incident entered the community on Monday. The refinery's plant manager told Baytown Mayor Calvin Mundinger of the incident around 3 p.m. during a monthly economic development meeting.

Under investigation

Exxon did not tell the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality about the offsite impact until about 6 p.m. Tuesday.

The company is under investigation by the TCEQ for failing to notify the state within 24 hours of discovering the spill had affected a neighborhood, as required.

By the time county and state investigators arrived at Archia Courts on Wednesday morning, it was too late. Contractors hired by the oil giant had spent Tuesday scrubbing the process gas oil that was showered on houses and cars from one of Exxon's massive storage tanks across the street.

The company's own safety information reveals that process gas oil, a close relative to crude oil, can irritate the skin after prolonged exposure.

"I knew exactly who to call," said Joseph, who dialed information and asked for the number of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after returning from errands and seeing a half-dozen Exxon Mobil workers walking along the neighborhood's streets.

The EPA operator directed her to the National Response Center, a Washington, D.C.-based clearinghouse set up in 1968 to ensure that oil-spill cleanups are done in a timely manner to minimize threats to human health and the environment.

'Waste of time'

"I called them, and they didn't do anything," Joseph said. "It was a waste of time."

The local communication system for spills also broke down. Despite 1995 guidelines established by the company and city officials that say a call should be made in emergencies and nonemergencies that cause a public concern or impact, Exxon Mobil never reported the spill to local law enforcement.

If Exxon had followed those guidelines, the fire department or local police likely would have responded, Baytown officials said.

"Why didn't the city get notified on this? Frankly, I think someone just dropped the ball," said Malcolm Swinney, the city's communications coordinator. "This definitely fit within the guidelines that they should have called us."

An Exxon spokeswoman said the incident did not require the city's assistance. She added that although the guidelines suggest the company should place an informational call, the decision to do so is a "courtesy."

"The strategy for us in this case was to handle it face to face,"said Jeanne Miller, a spokeswoman for the company's Baytown operations.

Report sat overnight

Joseph's complaint reached the Houston office of the TCEQ, via e-mail, at 4:45 p.m. Monday. But the Chronicle's analysis shows that the report sat overnight until the lone person who reviews National Response Center reports — and who is responsible for fielding emergency calls from 13 counties — got in the next morning. The regional office receives between 30 and 100 spill reports from the center on any given day.

"It's a resource problem," said Jim Indest, the leader of TCEQ's emergency response group in the Houston region. "We only have one person reviewing these things."

After Indest's group reviewed the report Tuesday morning, more than 24 hours after the event, no one recognized that it was the same spill Exxon Mobil reported a day earlier. The company said the impact was "land only, within the facility."

On its own, Indest said, Joseph's report did not look like a serious situation.

"Now, if we knew that it was related to the spill and the amount of the spill was the amount that we knew ... but we had no way of knowing that the tank that Exxon called in sits next to a neighborhood. There was no way to put the two together," he said.

Instead, the complaint, which described the release as an air pollution event, was forwarded electronically to the Houston region's air quality section. But no one who works in that area at the Polk Street office remembers receiving it.

"I can't find anyone in my group that would normally manage this kind of information who recognizes it," said Marsha Hill, the air section manager. "What should be happening is that we should recognize in a report like this a need to respond."

None of the other agencies that received a copy of Joseph's report responded either. It reached the EPA, the Texas General Land Office, and the state Department of State Health Services. Later, when asked whose job it was to act on such a report, each pointed to a different agency.

The General Land Office, according to Jim Suydam, a spokesman, needs to "have oil in the water for us to go. That was a TCEQ deal."

The Texas Department of State Health Services in Austin, which received an e-mail at 2:53 p.m. on Monday, the time many other agencies also got word, only uses such information for research. Its research grant bars it from collecting information on petroleum product spills.

According to state and U.S. Coast Guard officials, the Archia Courts incident was the EPA's responsibility. The agency is the only one that received an actual telephone call from the National Response Center. It came into the agency's Dallas headquarters at 2:54 p.m. Monday.

Not covered by laws

But the Exxon incident, which released oil into the air and impacted only land, was not covered by the five federal laws that dictate what must be reported and responded to through the National Response Center.

The complaint was immediately reviewed at EPA headquarters, where the phone duty officer determined the agency did not have the authority to respond because the oil "did not cause or have the potential to cause an oil sheen on waters of the United States."

For that same reason, Exxon was not required to report the spill to the federal spill hot line.

"According to our environmental guys, process gas oil ... is not a reportable substance," Miller said. "It did not spill into water."

In fact, while other laws require a suite of chemicals to be reported to the federal hot line, none of those cover oil.

Sam Coleman, director of the EPA's Superfund division, admits that a traditional reading of the regulations has gaps. But the agency continues to explore the incident, "to better understand what, if any, reporting requirements may or may not have been met," he said.

EPA officials said residents' best bet is to contact local authorities.

But in the Exxon case, that pathway failed, too.

A review of all 911 and nonemergency phone calls to the Baytown Police Department on Jan. 23 shows that no residents or company official called in the spill.

"Had we heard from neighbors, I feel confident that at some level — at least the fire department — would have driven out to the scene," City Manager Gary Jackson said. Jackson said he learned of the incident around 10 a.m. Tuesday when he was handed a written message saying that Exxon spokeswoman Miller had called. Miller said she telephoned city administration Monday.

Baytown Fire Chief Shon Blake didn't learn about the spill until he received a call on his cell phone from an Exxon Mobil official between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Swinney, who is in charge of the city's communications, read about it in the newspaper Wednesday.

Mayor has 'faith' in Exxon

The earliest anyone in Baytown government knew about the release, according to the Chronicle's investigation, was late Monday afternoon, when Mayor Mundinger was told by Exxon's plant manager at the meeting. The mayor said he was confident Exxon was taking care of the problem, despite not reporting it through normal channels.

"This wasn't an ammonia release. It was an oily, greasy substance that got on some houses and cars," Mundinger said.

"I have a lot of faith that when Exxon has a problem they move quickly and swiftly to deal with it. There may have been a glitch in reporting, but I know there were people on site immediately trying to remedy the situation as promptly as possible."

Felicia Joseph said Mundinger's response illustrates why she chose to call the federal government rather than rely on local officials.

"These people do not care, plain and simple," said Joseph, who wants to move from the housing project.

She also doesn't subscribe to the EPA's other recommendation, calling the company, even though calls from neighbors to Exxon Mobil after the incident informed the company of the mess and led to a cleanup.

"What am I going to call the company for?" Joseph said. "That would be like calling a hit-and-run driver and saying, 'You hit my car.'"

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