First independent air quality monitor not in place until nearly an hour after ExxonMobil fire started

There was a large fire at the ExxonMobil refinery in north Baton Rouge that started late...
There was a large fire at the ExxonMobil refinery in north Baton Rouge that started late Tuesday night (Feb. 11) and was extinguished during the early morning hours Wednesday (Feb. 12).(Viewer)
Published: Feb. 14, 2020 at 7:47 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The night of the significant fire at the ExxonMobil refinery, every report indicated there was no off-site impact during air quality monitoring. WAFB has since learned the testing didn’t begin for nearly an hour after the fire started.

RELATED: No injuries, off-site impact after significant fire at ExxonMobil refinery

Representatives from ExxonMobil say its emergency response teams were on scene of the fire within the first seven minutes and notified Baton Rouge Fire Department promptly. According to BRFD, the first call to 9-1-1 wasn’t until 11:37 p.m. and it was by a concerned passerby, not ExxonMobil.

RELATED: Homeowners near ExxonMobil left rattled after fire, say communication needs improvement

The first call from ExxonMobil to the fire department wasn’t until 11:42 pm.

According to the department, its Hazmat team didn’t arrive on scene until 12:11 a.m., which is the time when the first air quality tests were conducted. Given the time the fire was discovered, according to The Advocate, means there was roughly an hour without air testing.

ExxonMobil officials confirmed Thursday, Feb. 13 that two potentially cancer causing chemicals were released during the fire. They include benzene and butadien. Both amounts were above the limits in which ExxonMobil must report to the Department of Environmental Quality.

During a telephone conference call with WAFB staff, ExxonMobil State Regulatory Advisor Robert Berg said there were not any dangerous chemicals detected outside the gates of the facility at any point during the incident. Berg added the following:

  • Exxon is required to report any release to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and Louisiana State Police (LSP) whenever the substance exceeds pre-set “reportable quantities,” known as “RQ.”
  • Exxon reported to authorities that the incident could have caused “flammable vapor” to be released into the nearby community. That’s a class of chemicals that could catch fire if there is an ignition source. Natural gas is one example of a flammable vapor.
  • Exxon reported to authorities that butadiene is used to produce rubber and tires. Any amounts over 10 lbs must be reported. Exxon estimates about 10,000 lbs were released over the course of the fire.
  • Exxon reported to authorities that benzene was released during the incident. Benzene is used by Exxon to produce plastic. Any amounts over 10 lbs must be reported. Exxon does not know how much benzene was released, but told authorities it likely exceeds the limit.
  • Exxon reported to authorities that sulfur dioxide was released hours after the incident began, as more of the plant burned. Sulfur dioxide arises mainly from the burning of coal or crude oil. Any amounts over 500 lbs must be reported. Exxon does not know how much sulfur dioxide was released, but told authorities it likely exceeds the limit.
  • Exxon notified LDEQ and LSP of the “reportable quantities” more than 50 minutes after the fire started, but under the one-hour time limit that’s legally required for an initial report that substances that have been released.
  • Exxon says it does not have the authority to issue a “shelter in place” outside of its property. That must be done by law enforcement. A “shelter in place,” which was not called for in the community during this event, usually orders residents to stay indoors with windows closed and air conditioning or heating units turned off.
  • Exxon’s next reporting step is to file a letter with LDEQ and LSP within seven days of the incident to adjust any estimates on substances that were released and add any new ones, if applicable. This is known as the “seven-day letter.”
  • Exxon said most of the flames that were visible were from natural gas.
  • Exxon said it notified the Baton Rouge Fire Department immediately after the fire broke out.
  • The Baton Rouge Fire Department’s hazmat unit was first to begin monitoring of air quality outside of Exxon’s fence line. LDEQ and Exxon staff joined in the effort at a later time. Exxon did not have an exact time the fire started and a spokeswoman did not know exactly when the fire department was first notified. Exxon’s own fire department solely worked to extinguish the fire, a process that took seven hours.
  • Exxon says workers with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) arrived at the plant to conduct air quality testing, but were so “impressed” with Exxon’s testing that the EPA did not conduct its own testing.

Once the tests were conducted, the Baton Rouge Fire Department reported everything came back non-detect, meaning the air should have been safe for residents from the time they first started testing, an hour after the fire started.


Anyone who would like to sign up for CodeRED, the notification system Exxon uses to send out alerts, can click here.

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