Rare use of high-tech helicopter surveillance has led to federal pollution violation notices for a list of Louisiana oil and gas facilities, documents and officials show, with inspections targeting a wide range of factories throughout the state.
The overflights using an infrared detection camera took place in 2021, but were only recently publicly disclosed through the federal government. Environmental Protection Agency filing of documents. This is the first time the EPA has conducted a broad survey of air pollution at factories in the state using helicopters, an EPA spokesperson said.
The thefts targeted six areas of the state, including the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, rural areas as far north as Shreveport, as well as Lafayette, Morgan City and Lake Charles. The EPA spokesperson said the agency decided to expand the program after judging previous similar checks in New Mexico and Texas to have been successful.
The EPA has so far issued nine violation notices to oil and gas companies operating in Louisiana after surveillance flights recorded emissions of volatile organic chemicals.
The surveillance helicopter monitored more than 150 facilities between Aug. 14 and Sept. 24, 2021, EPA spokesman Joseph Robledo said. The monitoring company has not been named.
“The helicopter … inspected 5,181 tanks, 226 flares and 62 other sources of leaks and emissions,” Robledo said. “Hydrocarbon emissions were detected from approximately 47 unique sources at 29 different facilities. Some programs were authorized, others not authorized.
The helicopter flew about 200 feet above the ground and made video recordings with a Direct Viewing Infrared Radiometer, or FLIR, which is an optical gas imaging camera.
The EPA sent notification letters and received responses from the 29 facilities where emissions were detected, he said. In some cases, on-site inspections and off-site compliance assessments have been carried out.
The EPA would not publish the letters and responses and denied a request from The Times-Picayune | Counsel for the early release of these and other materials regarding the investigation under the federal Freedom of Information Act. He said the newspaper failed to show that not releasing them “would pose an imminent threat to the life or physical safety of any individual”.
However, notices of violation issued between May and December 2022 at nine of the facilities, owned by seven different companies, were recently posted to a public EPA database. These notices gave each facility the opportunity to confer with the EPA before it determined whether fines should be imposed.
The overflights followed similar investigations in Texas and New Mexico dating back to 2019, when helicopters monitored more than 1,800 emission sources to identify 197 with potentially unauthorized emissions. Last year, the EPA also targeted potential methane emissions in the Permian Basin in Texas with similar flybys.
EPA officials worked with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to determine which facilities are significant sources of volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants, two categories of emissions regulated by both the EPA and the state. He then informed DEQ of the areas that would be surveyed, Robledo said.
A DEQ spokesperson said officials there have not heard from the EPA’s monitoring effort since December 2021, other than receiving copies of responses sent to the EPA by the companies.
EPA notices of violation cite each company for violating Louisiana regulations limiting the emission of organic compounds, requiring the use of best practices housekeeping and maintenance standards, or permitting the release of emissions by not keeping emergency flares on:
- Bayou Bouillon Operating LLC production plant near Butte LaRose. Emissions from unlit flare, top of large tank and piping. Muammer Alboamemah, the company’s chief operating officer, said his company has resolved issues with the EPA through various actions, including ensuring tanks, flares and vessels are checked for poor ventilation. twice a day, checking control valves, adding a second flare and upgrading flare equipment and hiring a petroleum engineer to oversee environmental compliance.
- Columbia Gulf Transmission Company – Rayne Compressor Station. Leakage from a pipeline liquids tank giving off hydrocarbon emissions. Columbia Gulf entered into a consent agreement on August 24 requiring it to stop using the tank, amend its state license and pay a fine of $57,968. A spokesperson for TC Energy, owner of the Columbia Gulf Rayne compressor station, said the EPA’s concerns have been resolved with the consent agreement and the company continues to monitor its pipeline systems 24 hours a day. out of 24.
- ETC Field Services, LLC – Dubach Cryogenic Plant. Leaks from two safety vent stacks releasing hydrocarbon emissions.
- Harvest Midstream Co. – Kaplan Gas Plant. Failure to install a vapor recovery system and direct vapors to a gas system or control device to reduce overall facility instantaneous gas emissions by at least 95%, and leaks from four tanks storage releasing hydrocarbon emissions.
- John W. Stone Oil Distribution, LLC – Gretna Terminal. Leak from a tank releasing hydrocarbon emissions and failure to control emissions from that tank with a required oxidation unit. A company spokesperson said it does not comment on ongoing investigations.
- Kinetica Deepwater Express – Patterson Terminal. Leaks from a storage tank releasing hydrocarbons. A Kinetica spokesperson said the facility was damaged during Hurricane Ida on August 29, 2021, and the EPA flyby occurred shortly after. An inspection in October revealed no leaks, but a leaking seal was later discovered and its repair was completed on 10 December.
- Texas Petroleum Investment Co. Weeks Island East facility in Iberia Parish. Leaks from seven storage tanks releasing hydrocarbon emissions into the air; Weeks Island Central Facility, emissions from an extinguished emergency control flare; Weeks Island West Facility in Iberia Parish leaks from a 1,500 barrel oil storage tank and a 2,000 barrel water storage tank releasing hydrocarbon emissions into the air. David Margulies, spokesman for Texas Petroleum, said the company is committed to working with regulators to protect the environment. “Each of the emissions issues identified at our Weeks Island facility were resolved in 2021 and resolved at that time,” he said.
This work is supported by a grant funded by the Walton Family Foundation and administered by the Society of Environmental Journalists.