The U.S. Energy Department says crews at the largest American refinery are working to repair damage suffered as Hurricane Ida passed through Southern Mississippi on April 2, shutting off power to the facility as much as a month ago.
Officials at Phillips 66’s 225,000-barrel-per-day Bayway refinery, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of New Orleans, say the extent of the damage depends on the health of the utility lines that supply the plant. The outage has forced the refinery to pour ammonia into the air as a “falling-out” method of discharging its gas. That ammonia flows through a dry chemical hose through which the gasoline to which the refinery has been blending its petroleum products is then directed.
The closure of the plant and its Tuesday release of “an unknown amount of noxious gases into the air near the refinery and/or potential releases of noxious gases beyond the actual refinery operation” is making the facility the focus of a public-health investigation, the department said in a weekly report Friday. The facility covers one of the last coal and one of the last petroleum refinery lands that is situated on the shoreline, about 30 miles southeast of New Orleans, in the Mississippi Delta.
“Noxious gases release is due to a utility outage that occurred due to Hurricane Ida,” Chuck Deveaux, a spokesman for the refinery, said in an emailed statement, referring to the Category 1 hurricane.
Crews are working to make repairs to the backup diesel generators and gas-to-liquids operations, which are connected to the plant by a 70-mile pipeline, Deveaux said.
Employees of the East Bank Pipeline Company, which runs through Louisiana and Mississippi and serves both the refinery and the retail gas stations it leases to Phillips 66, asked the company in the past two days to test air quality around the site in light of the issue, Deveaux said. The company responded by collecting samples of the air from the ship channel and surrounding public housing in East New Orleans, and transported the samples to the research lab of the department’s Oil Pollution Control office in Baton Rouge, La.
“Our initial data indicates there is a correlation between the increased evacuation orders and the residents’ complaints,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. “No pollutant testing has been done at the refinery site itself, and the public air quality has been undetected due to the lack of monitoring and response by the state and local government officials.”
Chris Cox, a spokesman for the department, said the state health department and the local government have requested the EPA staff to provide “clarification and direction” regarding the issue. He said he couldn’t comment further on the process due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.
Because the refinery is a refinery, if its gas-to-liquids operation were to be damaged, its storage tanks or pipelines are also vulnerable. Like a chemical explosion, an electrical failure caused by a hurricane could also release chemicals at the plant, as they have been, Cox said.
The plant also provides gas to about 50,000 customers on the East Bank of Louisiana and as many as 250,000 downstream in Baton Rouge, Cox said. He could not estimate how much gasoline was being produced at the plant as a result of the outage, given how the activity affects both its production and the amount of gas flowing through the pipeline.
The cause of the diesel generator failure and how long it will take for power to be restored was not immediately clear. An analysis of the pipeline by the company is expected later this week. While officials at the facility said the pipe had been inspected over the past year, it is not known how it failed.
The plant is on the eastern edge of the area prone to flooding during storms like Hurricane Katrina, which also flooded the area, Cox said. Katrina cut off the utility lines that allow the plant to keep producing. It is unclear how the utility was affected by the shutdown this week.