EPA records reveal oil refinery safety questions

August 1, 2013 (JOLIET, Ill.)

After a recent release of a potentially dangerous chemical into the atmosphere, the I-Team has learned that state officials are trying to crack down on ExxonMobil's refinery near Joliet.

But there's a larger cloud of doubt that has been uncovered and some local residents say they are questioning their family's safety.

"Horrible. Babies, your kids, animals, and then they don't know about it?" said Allison Stipanovich.

It's the unknown that has Stipanovich worried. She lives near the ExxonMobil Refinery, or in the case of what happened this past October, within raining distance. That's when an oily mist from the plant fell onto surrounding towns and neighborhoods without warning, even shutting down i-55.

Now Stipanovich says she's worried about a chemical release from the plant this spring that went undetected for nine hours.

"It's scary, because you don't know what that could lead to," she said. "Should you live around here? Should you move if they're not aware of those things? They need to get it under control to make sure that this doesn't happen."

The most recent incident at the plant is leading to legal action. The state attorney general and will county prosecutors filed this lawsuit charging air pollution violations by ExxonMobil.

According to emergency reports the company filed with the state, a "valve failure" that went undetected for nine hours in March, led to an airborne release of more than four thousand pounds of the potentially dangerous chemical hydrogen sulfide.

"It can be very dangerous," said Dr. Samuel Dorevitch. "Given that there have been high level releases, if I lived in that community I would want to know what the community level exposure has been."

The I-Team's inspection of United States Environmental Protection Agency records reveals additional potential threats to public health and safety.

First, according to the U.S. EPA, ExxonMobil allegedly violated three different environmental laws at Channahon from 2008 through 2011, including improper handling of hazardous waste and failing to provide immediate public notice of releases to the environment.

Second, the facility has filed 64 hazardous materials incident reports since 2010 for releasing potentially dangerous chemicals in excess of legal limits.

Finally, in a federal filing a month ago, ExxonMobil said its Channahon plant reached daily levels of hydrogen sulfide release in 2012 that were so high that they had to notify the EPA. An ExxonMobil statement says that the emissions are consistent with industry standards.

ExxonMobil wouldn't provide an on camera response for this report and their security guards tried to stop us from shooting video of the plant.

In a statement, the company says it's "committed to environmental performance excellence" and their goal is to have no environmental incidents.

"What's most surprising is that a leak like this can go for nine hours without being detected this is frightening," said Ellen Rendulich, Citizens Against Ruining the Environment.

Southwest suburban environmental activists say this incident is just their latest concern with facilities throughout the Chicago area.

"This is an all-encompassing problem," said Carol Stark, Citizens Against Ruining the Environment. "It's not just a localized problem because air doesn't have a boundary."

As for that October oil storm? An ExxonMobil spokeswoman said the company responded quickly to the incident and regrets any inconvenience to their neighbors.

ExxonMobil reports their facility has been recently inspected by Illinois and U.S. EPA with no violations noted and that they comply with all permits, rules and regulations.

Click here to search EPA reports for facilities in your community: http://www2.epa.gov/toxics-release-inventory-tri-program

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