APRIL 27-MAY 3, 2005

Is Toledo's Sunoco refinery a safety and health threat? by Steve Steel

Oil. Modern industrial society can’t live without it—for energy, plastics, lubricants, paving material, paints, and much more.
And you can’t live with it, either, according to residents of neighborhoods surrounding the Sunoco refinery on Toledo’s east side. The refinery turns crude oil into gasoline and many other products. Local residents claim it causes numerous acute and chronic health problems, a claim contested by Sunoco itself and by a study performed by a federal agency.
Workers at the facility and environmental watchdog groups, are concerned that the operation of the refinery itself may be even more of a hazard, a virtual “accident waiting to happen” They claim an unacceptable number of pollutant releases and equipment malfunctions covered up by Sunoco management. Workers further contend that production has been increased dramatically at the expense of safety concerns and deteriorating working conditions. Again, Sunoco denies those allegations. And an explosion at a BP refinery last month in Texas City, Texas has Sunoco neighbors more concerned about safety than ever before.
Determining the truth of health and safety concerns at the Sunoco refinery may be crucial to both short and long term quality of life in the Toledo area east of the Maumee River.

East side story
The current controversy around operations at Sunoco has gained public attention due to health complaints lodged by citizens in adjacent neighborhoods in Toledo and Oregon. Many citizens who live in the area have recently begun to speak out about health concerns they attribute to the refinery’s emissions. Anita LaPorte lived on Earlwood Avenue, several hundred yards to the northeast of the refinery, and worked at Pathology Laboratories, Inc, at 2300 Navarre Ave., located even closer to the plant. “My mom died of leukemia and lung cancer, and she never smoked in her life,” LaPorte said. Her brother’s family still lives in the Earlwood residence, and all suffer from asthma. “My sister-in-law has possible leukemia as well.”
LaPorte said she also developed asthma and suffered from headaches and other respiratory problems. She eventually became too ill to work and sought medical advice from Dr. Muhammad Nasser, a biochemical expert in Chicago familiar with Gulf War Syndrome and Agent Orange exposure. “He told me I had typical refinery symptoms,” she said. “I’ve been to countless doctors, and they say I have multiple chemical sensitivity.” This disorder limits her ability to withstand exposure to chemicals such as those found in common household cleaners, among others. Dr. Nasser could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.
LaPorte filed a lawsuit against Sunoco in 1996 but received no compensation, in part, she maintains, because she “got too sick to attend the hearings.” She is now on full Social Security disability due to her multiple
chemical sensitivity.
Other area residents have similar ailments. Heather Wolfe lives on Mambrino Street, directly east of the facility. “I have migraines every day, normal headaches, sinus problems, nausea. Even my pets get sick,” Wolfe said. Milo Espinosa is co-owner of the J & M Carry-out at 2115 Navarre Ave., directly across the street from the refinery. “Every day I get hit with this smell (from the refinery) and feel like I’m going to faint,” she says. “Now I’m on medication for allergic reactions in my nose, throat and eyes. I never had those allergies before.” Sara Jackson, who lives a few blocks north of Sunoco, says the smell Espinosa describes has been getting worse “over the last 7-8 years” and is now “the worst it’s ever been.”
Wolfe is the chair of the East Side-Oregon Environmental Group — neighbors seeking to work with Sunoco on developing resolutions to the health complaints. Sunoco’s Web site explains the formation of a Toledo Neighbor Task Force in 2003 to “address neighborhood-specific concerns and questions regarding the refinery and its operations” with folks living within 5 miles of the plant. But neighbors like LaPorte were explicitly excluded from membership because of the previous lawsuit, according to Rachael Belz, the associate director of the environmental group Ohio Citizen Action.
Wolfe is blunt in what she sees as the flaw in Sunoco’s attempts to reach out to neighbors. “They won’t even acknowledge there’s a problem. How can they work on a problem if they won’t even acknowledge it?”

Studying the problem
In an attempt to force Sunoco to acknowledge the alleged health “problem,” LaPorte and other neighbors pressed the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to perform a study of air emissions at the site. The ATSDR monitored air emissions at the refinery over a 3 month period in late 2003 and early 2004. The ATSDR report, issued in August of 2004, states that the monitoring stations “did not detect volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, or sulfur dioxide at concentrations expected to cause adverse health effects.”
That finding satisfies Sunoco spokesperson Olivia Summons. “We have permits which allow for a given amount of emissions,” she says. “We are a very regulated industry, and our recent releases are not violations of our permits.” She also uses the ATSDR study to prove the “reliability” of the facility. “We have miles of pipes and thousands of pumps and compressors. Malfunctions will cause releases” into the surrounding neighborhood. She says Sunoco would prefer zero malfunctions and is always working toward that goal. “But our first priority is the safety of our neighbors and environmental responsibility. Our releases have been proven [by the ATSDR study] to have no adverse health effects.”
However, the ATSDR study did find sulfur dioxide levels approaching the hazardous range for people with asthma, and recommended additional monitoring. More importantly, the monitoring stations were located to the east and west of the facility, with the east station, upwind from Wolfe’s house, showing greater concentrations. ATSDR scientist Jennifer Freed attributes that to “prevailing winds.”
Prevailing winds are typically blow from the southwest to the northeast, or toward LaPorte’s old house on Earlwood, but air quality was not monitored there. Neither was it monitored to the north of the facility, where Sara Jackson lives and Milo Espinosa works. And Freed admits that the period of the study may not be fully indicative of long-term emissions at the refinery, since they “could vary with the seasons and (intensity of) operations at the facility.”
In order to get specific data on the health of refinery neighbors, OCA undertook a door-to-door survey in August 2004 requesting health information. In January 2004, OCA had previously instituted a “good neighbor campaign,” calling on Sunoco to work with neighbors. The health survey, given in person within a one mile radius of the facility, asked simple questions relating to specific ailments suffered by respondents and household members. It also asked for contact information so respondents could be provided with cumulative results of the survey. According to OCA’s report on the survey, responses were received describing the health of 339 adults and 134 children — 473 total neighbors. OCA Associate Director Rachael Belz described the results as “astonishing” in a letter to Lucas County Health Commissioner Dr. David Grossman: “Sixty percent of the respondents or their children experience headaches, many on a daily basis. Thirty-five percent of the respondents have itchy, irritated eyes. Approximately a quarter of (the) respondents ... experience asthma, shortness of breath, general fatigue, sinus infections and ear infections. Many neighbors experience combinations of negative health effects.” Belz believes the county health commission should conduct further study and “make them clean up their operation.” Grossman did not respond to several phone calls seeking comment for this article.
Toledo City Councilman Bob McCloskey, who represents the Toledo neighborhood near the refinery, says he is confident that Sunoco does not pose a health threat to his constituents. “(Sunoco has) been here a long time,” McCloskey said, “And they are constantly upgrading their equipment.” More importantly, he says the refinery is the biggest employer on Toledo’s east side. “We need those jobs to keep our economy going. It would be nice if we didn’t have explosive materials like gasoline produced there, but we do.”

Class Act
In March of 2004, fifteen residents filed a class action lawsuit in Lucas County Common Pleas Court alleging their health problems were the responsibility of the Sunoco refinery. Steve Liddle, attorney for the
plaintiffs, says the suit alleges the Sun facility has “ chronic emissions problems” caused by “ignoring administrative issues.” The suit seeks financial damages for health effects and depressed property values. The suit also seeks “injunctive relief” to force Sunoco to alter its operations.
During the course of the suit Sunoco subpoenaed all OCA documents relating to their on-going “good neighbor” campaign and the results of their August 2004 survey. After the August health survey, subpoenas were issued for the complete survey documents. “That breaches moral and patient’s rights issues” according to Belz, since the survey information includes respondent’s names and addresses. “We offered to provide aggregate data, or give copies of the health information with names blacked out, but Sunoco refused. They want the entire surveys.”
OCA is not involved in the class action suit, but Belz believes Sunoco’s goal is to intimidate and discredit neighbors who might testify in the suit. In a February 2005 letter, Sunoco attorney Dominic Asante counters that “so long as plaintiffs maintain claims of personal injury,” the health surveys are relevant and crucial to Sunoco’s defense. And while Asante maintains that there is “no intention whatsoever to intimidate or take reprisals against any person,” he adds that if the plaintiffs choose to amend their complaint in the suit “to remove any personal injury claims or damages…Sunoco would have no need for the requested (health) information.” Asante closes the letter with the “hope that the plaintiffs will accept our offer” and drop all claims of damage to personal health.
OCA has filed in the U.S. District Court requesting an order to quash the subpoenas, relieving OCA from turning over the survey information. While the status of the health surveys is determined the class action suit languishes.

Blowing off steam
The core issue of all these allegations is the cause and amount of potentially harmful emissions released by Sunoco. Shirley Jacobs, a former resident of Oregon adjacent to the refinery, says she never really worried about what was coming out of the facility. “(I assumed) the EPA (was) monitoring this factory and I found out that wasn’t the case.” It was only after developing breast cancer, which required a mastectomy that Jacobs learned the truth. Rather than direct governmental oversight, Jacobs learned that Sunoco was required to self-monitor emissions and report to Toledo Environmental Services. This self-reporting has raised controversy among neighbors, workers, and environmental groups.
According to Ohio EPA spokesperson Dina Pierce, all emissions including those related to unanticipated “malfunctions” are reported by Sunoco to Toledo Environmental Services as the EPA’s local authority. “Their operation permit runs over 1000 pages and determines allowable emissions, stack heights, and other provisions to protect the health of the neighborhood,” Pierce said. “The permit includes approved emergency plans if any release poses an immediate health threat.” Regarding more chronic emissions threats, Pierce
notes that “permit levels are based on federal guidelines for public health” and relate to “maximum capacity
and maximum exposure. Of course, we assume the actual exposure will be less.” Pierce admits that these guidelines relate to a normal healthy adult, with the “ elderly, children and those with lung problems (being) more susceptible.”
Belz and OCA studied the difference between emissions reported by Sun to neighbors and those reported to Toledo Environmental Services. “For example, in 2002 they were reporting emissions to neighbors in the 50,000 pound range. The real amount obtained by reviewing reports sent to Toledo Environmental Services was more like 25 million pounds, or 520 times what was reported to citizens. It includes an increase of 70% more sulfur dioxide, 176% more carbon monoxide, and 90% more volatile organic compounds” over emissions in 2001.

Upsets and malfunctions
But what of the equipment malfunctions that cause large releases during “upsets?” Speaking for Sunoco, Summons says it is inevitable given the complexity of the operations. Sunoco workers tell another story, however.
Hourly workers are expected to sign a “confidentiality agreement” as a condition for employment to protect proprietary information. These agreements remain in force even after retirement or termination. The information covered by the agreement is subject to interpretation and could protect maintenance and attendant safety issues at the facility from being disclosed to the public or government agencies. Workers interviewed for this story refused to be identified for fear of retaliation, in light of the confidentiality agreements, but also because of what one worker referred to as “management by intimidation.”
According to sources inside the refinery, much maintenance work has been subcontracted over the past several years. Coinciding with increases in maintenance-related malfunctions, claims are made that workers are coerced into keeping their own concerns “out of the log books.” Workers say management refuses to put any safety or health concerns in writing and instead work to “harass and intimidate” workers to keep them from voicing concerns in the first place.
In the meantime, the refinery is running at an all-time high level of productivity (150,000 barrels per day says Summons), and profitability, with an increase in Sunoco’s “refining and supply” quarterly profits of 675% for the fourth quarter of 2004 relative to the fourth quarter of 2003 ($135 million to $20 million, respectively). Sun CEO and President John G. Drosdick’s introductory letter to the 2004 annual report says, “2004 was an outstanding year for Sunoco. We generated record earnings and our share price rose to record levels. The Refining and
Supply business led the way with pacesetter performance combined with record high margins.” This at a time when crude oil prices were at an all-time high. “We took advantage of the strong refining margin environment by running our refineries at record operating rates. We set production records, particularly for high-valued products, and improved both the utilization and energy efficiency of our facilities.” Concerns about the ability of the infrastructure to handle this level of strain remain. Record production levels may be responsible in part for continuing “malfunctions” at the plant.

Prepare for inspection
Toledo Environmental Services is responsible for plant inspections every three years. Inspections are announced well in advance and no unannounced inspections occur. Summons would not respond to questions regarding Sunoco’s proactive maintenance scheduling to reduce equipment malfunctions. A source at Toledo Environmental Services, who declined to be named for this article, reports that the refinery schedules planned shutdowns about every two years for what are called “turnarounds” when maintenance is performed — “They know where the problems are and work to correct them.” It is the closest thing the refinery has to preventive maintenance, this source says. “There is no ongoing planned maintenance that I am aware of.”
The most recent plant inspection found only minor problems, which were corrected. The next inspection must be completed before September 30. Workers say that Sunoco works to ensure the inspections yield nothing unusual. “But it also keeps maintenance issues from being detected by an outside agency,” said one Sunoco worker.
At least one such agency has taken notice of potential maintenance problems at Sunoco. Sunoco’s own financial report for 2004 admits that “Sunoco has received Notices of Violation and Findings of Violation from the U.S. EPA relating to… failure to comply with certain requirements relating to leak detection and repair at the Toledo refinery. … The EPA has also alleged that at the Toledo refinery, certain physical and operational changes were made to the sulfur plant in 1995, 1998 and 1999 without obtaining requisite permits. A flare system was changed without the permits and was not being operated in compliance with the Clean Air Act. Sunoco has met with representatives of the EPA on these Notices and Findings of Violation with the aim of trying to resolve these matters.” These quotes are taken from a report to stockholders and others with fiscal interest in the refinery. The report continues, “Although Sunoco does not believe that it has violated any Clean Air Act requirements, as part of this initiative, Sunoco could be required to make significant capital expenditures … incur higher operating costs, operate these refineries at reduced levels and/or pay significant penalties.” No such penalties have been levied as of this writing.

Stalemate over stale air

Presently, the state court class action lawsuit against Sun is stayed, pending the outcome of the OCA health survey subpoena controversy. That controversy sits in the U.S. District Court awaiting a ruling.
Oregon Mayor Marge Brown says she has not received any calls (about the refinery) for 8 months and urges neighbors to call her at 419-698-7045 so she can “work with them.” She says if she receives any complaints, she will contact Olivia Summons at Sunoco.
Folks like Heather Wolfe continue to live near the refinery and experience headaches, nausea, and other ailments, and hope that something will finally convince Sunoco to work with neighbors to improve conditions.
“ I feel like they think we’re expendable,” Wolfe said. “The last generation died in my neighborhood. I feel like they’re waiting until we die off so the problem will go away.”