Chalmette Refinery Worker Dies While Working to Repair Gas Leak

A contractor at the Chalmette Refining LLC facility in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana died yesterday while attempting to fix a hydrogen sulfide gas leak there. <"">Chalmette Refining, which is partly owned by Exxon Mobile, is the same refinery that released 19 tons of spent catalyst powder during a power outage on Labor Day.

According to a report on Bloomberg News, the hydrogen sulfide leak began on October 4. Exxon Mobile Corp. is cutting its production rates at Chalmette Refining while it works to stop the leak.

The death occurred sometime Wednesday night. The deceased worker was Gregory Starkey, 33, of Roseland. He worked for Team Industrial Services of Harahan. The St. Bernard Parish sheriff’s office said last night that it was unclear whether the cause of death was exposure or a pre-existing medical problem. Some answers from the St. Bernard Parish coroner are expected today.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade
, an environmental group, is reporting on its site that Starkey’s respirator was cracked, exposing him to toxins.

Rodney Mallett, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, told that the hydrogen sulfide gas leak happened at the site of a previous leak that had been covered by a metal clamp. Sampling has shown no readings of hydrogen sulfide outside of the Chalmette Refining property, he said.

The public was not made aware of the hydrogen sulfide leak until Thursday, when news of Starkey’s death was released. While relevant state and local agencies were notified, Mallet said that because hydrogen sulfide was not detected at the refinery’s fences line, warning the public was “not warranted.”

Anne Rolfes, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, told WDSU that the refinery has averaged 83 accidents per year from 2005 to 2009.

“This refinery is laying off workers just when it needs to be hiring more to maintain this facility,” Rolfes said. “This is a notorious refinery, one of the worst in the state.”

One of those accidents, last month’s catalyst powder release, blanketed parts of Chalmette, Arabi and New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward in a fine white powder. Refinery officials, as well as health officials in Louisiana, said repeatedly that the substance was spent catalyst powder, a byproduct of the refining process. But now we know, thanks to a report Chalmette Refining submitted to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the incident also released 2,000 pounds of the sulfur dioxide, 1,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide and an unspecified amount of hydrogen sulfide into the air. That information has been confirmed by the DEQ, but the agency maintains that the amounts released fell below levels of concern specified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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