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Fiery flare, smoke from Motiva Norco refinery result of accident

A file photo of the Motiva Enterprises refinery from Times-Picayune archive

Published: Wednesday, May 09, 2012, 1:10 PM     Updated: Wednesday, May 09, 2012, 1:10 PM

 Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune

A fiery flaring of chemicals from the Motiva Enterprises refinery in Norco Tuesday night, accompanied by a large plume of smoke, was the result of a heater unit failure that forced a shutdown of a portion of the refinery, the state Department of Environmental Quality confirmed today.

Flames from the flare and a tall column of smoke were visible from the Causeway Boulevard exit of Interstate 10, 25 miles away, at 7 p.m. Tuesday. One person posted on YouTube a 7-minute video of the flare taken Tuesday afternoon from the I-10 bridge just west of Kenner.

Motiva Enterprises is a joint venture of Shell Oil Co. and Saudi Arabia Refining Inc.

At least one resident who lives about a mile away from the refinery said she reported the upset to DEQ officials Tuesday night after driving by it.

“It was making me nauseated,” said Iris Carter. “I was on Airline Highway, going to LaPlace, and this big, black smoke was coming out. It was coming into my car and I didn’t even have my air conditioning on. I was coughing and wheezing and it was disgusting.”

Fence line monitoring at ground level by Motiva officials Tuesday night, and fence line monitoring by DEQ this morning indicated no elevated levels of chemicals in the air, DEQ spokeswoman Jean Kelly said.

In a 7:09 p.m. Tuesday report on the accident to the National Response Center, company officials reported the refinery released benzene, butadiene, carbon monoxide, ethylene, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxide, propylene, sulfur dioxide, xylene, and other volatile organic carbons to the flare.

“The flare stack is currently smoking,” the report said. It blamed the shutdown on a “storm.”

The accident occurred in a “CO heater” that is part of the refinery. The NRC report said a thunderstorm caused the heater to shut down, “which caused a shake to the steam load shed” and resulted in the release of chemicals to the flare.

Motiva officials told DEQ that they were trying to return the CO heater to service, which requires the shut-down of another part of the process, and a continuation of flaring of chemicals, this morning.

The flaring began at 5:40 p.m., and DEQ officials were notified at 7:24 p.m., according to the NRC report. Kelly said the state was notified of the flaring at 7:09 p.m.

“We’re monitoring the situation and obviously, they’ll have to send us a letter saying what was released,” Kelly said.

The flaring also was reported to the federal Environmental Protection Agency by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which has been monitoring similar accidents at the refinery for several years.

Between 2005 and 2010, Motiva reported 174 accidents to the state, or over two per month, according to the environmental group.

“Motiva has an accident problem,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the environmental group. “There need to be immediate consequences for this flaring and the environmental and health harms that resulted from it.”

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