Total fined $8.75 million for Port Arthur refinery air violations

Total Petrochemical has been fined $8.75 million for violating a 2007 air pollution settlement with the federal government, the Justice Department said Friday.

At the heart of the violation is the number of flaring incidents at Total’s Port Arthur refinery, how it reported them, and whether it was in accordance with a 2007 settlement in which the company had agreed to reduce its emissions.

In the 2007 settlement, Total Petrochemical, which is a Houston-based subsidiary of French energy giant Total, was required to pay $2.9 million and upgrade its facilities with improved leak detection and repair that could minimize flaring. Flaring is used by refineries to release gas into the environment as a back-up safety measure when there are any issues with pressure control valves.

Since that time, Total failed to avoid more than 70 flaring incidents that emitted hazardous benzene gases from 2007 to 2011, or to address what was causing them, the Justice Department said.

“Total failed repeatedly to adhere to obligations they willingly took on when they settled with the United States in 2007,” said Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “These are court-enforceable requirements for the protection of the health of their Texas neighbors, not simply the cost of doing business.”

Nigel Tranter, the refinery manager for the Port Arthur plant, said that the majority of the fines related misunderstandings about how flaring events should be reported to state and federal regulators.

He said Total managers had incorrectly believed that only unplanned flaring events had to be reported to both state and federal regulators. They thought that planned flares  needed to be reported only to state regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“When we shut down parts of the plant for maintenance, we did not understand that we needed to report that flaring event to the [Environmental Protection Agency],” Tranter said. “The 42 events we did not report to the EPA were reported to the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality]. We were not deliberately trying to hide anything.”

Total has reduced its emissions more than 43 percent since 2005, including a benzene emissions reduction of more than 50 percent during that time period, according to Tranter.

“The fine relates to a delay in our implementation of improvements on benzene emissions,” Tranter said. “Our benzene emissions reduced on a constant basis, but we failed to inform the EPA that we were a little bit late to reduce those emissions.”

The Friday ruling also extended a requirement that Total lower its benzene emissions by an additional 30 percent beyond federal limits for the next two years.

Total has invested more than $2 billion in the refinery in recent years, converting it to process refine heavy-sulfur crude. It is able to process up to 174,000 barrels of crude oil a day.