Chalmette Refining Accident Released Potentially Toxic Chemicals

What exactly was released from the Chalmette Refining facility in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana as a result of a power outage on Labor Day? We’re now learning that some potentially toxic chemicals, in addition to spent catalyst powder, were released into the air from Chalmette refining that day.

The Chalmette Refining release blanketed parts of Chalmette, Arabi and New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, including cars and homes, 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.

They also issued reassurances that the powder was not toxic and could be safely washed from surfaces. This in spite of the fact that the Material Safety Data Sheet for the catalyst powder says it can be an irritant to the eyes and skin if inhaled or ingested. The data sheet cautions people to wear rubber gloves when handling the powder, and to decontaminate clothes and shoes, or even dispose of them all together.

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).

According to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says sulfur dioxide may cause breathing difficulty and a burning of the nose and throat in children as well as adults. Specifically for children, the ATSDR says, “Long-term studies surveying large numbers of children indicate that children who have breathed sulfur dioxide pollution may develop more breathing problems as they get older, may make more emergency room visits for treatment of wheezing fits, and may get more respiratory illnesses than other children.”

For hydrogen sulfide, the ATSDR says: “Exposure to low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide may cause irritation to the eyes, nose or throat. It may also cause difficulty in breathing for some asthmatics.” Finally, the same agency says: “Low levels of nitrogen oxides in the air can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, possibly causing you to cough and experience shortness of breath, tiredness, and nausea. Exposure to low levels can also result in fluid build-up in the lungs 1 or 2 days after exposure.”

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is again accusing officials from Chalmette Refining, as well as the state and parish, of downplaying the Labor Day release.

“The only substance people were told about is what was raining down on their property – the catalyst the refinery couldn’t hide,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “Chalmette Refining failed to be open and honest with its neighbors about a host of other chemicals that were released.”

“People in St. Bernard have repeated chemical exposure and the parish and the refinery routinely overlook this fact in their emergency response,” Rolfes continued.

In a statement, the group also alleged that residents in neighborhoods impacted by the Chalmette Refining release were being coerced into accepting small initial compensation to prevent eventual lawsuits. Additionally, some residents of the Lower 9th who called the Chalmette Refining claims hotline were told they lived too far from the incident, even though officials previously confirmed the powdery pollution reached that far.

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