Chevron — not the best neighbour

US oil giant Chevron now fully owns the Caltex refinery in Milnerton, having recently bought out Texaco. But like marooned penguins in an oil slick, Chevron refinery’s reputation of indifference for human health is sticking despite the name change.

Particularly in the eyes of those on whom they have had the most harmful impact – their neighbours. For years, residents have had to contend with troubles ranging from mass chronic respiratory ailments to toxic chemical spills on cars, plants and property, ongoing petrol stenches and sea-users suffering from numerous complaints linked to Chevron’s effluent pipe at Blouberg beach.

With the introduction of the new lead replacement fuel at the beginning of the year and its heavy metal additive methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl(MMT), it seems as though this might be just another hitch on the hazy horizon of petrochemical pollution.

The new Air Quality Act came into existence in September last year mainly to ‘protect human health, providing a framework for emission standards’. So says chemical engineer, professor Eugene Cairncross, who was involved in preparing submissions when the Bill was in Parliament. He said the concerns of MMT were twofold. “Manganese in high concentrations are harmful. Used in petrol it is lower, but people exposed to it are at greater risk. Due to known effects the precautionary measure would be not to use it or …the general population as a guinea pig”.

MMT breaks down into compounds of manganese in car engines. And Manganese exposure targets the testes, brain and lungs in humans. A known irritant to the respiratory system, MMT also poses a threat to motorists, as well as the environment. Not the only fuel additive that can be used, the vehicle manufacturing industry has objected to the use of manganese additives, claiming it has negative effects on emission control devices and on-board diagnostic systems.

“This compound is so toxic that if there is a spill, people have to wear space suits to clean up”, said Andy Birkinshaw, acting chairman of the Table View Ratepayers Association. His current battle dating to October 2005 is to have a more protective tank built by Chevron for the culprit compound. He said it had been a requirement for oil companies to post labelled breakdowns of the new fuel’s ingredients at all petrol-dispensing outlets, but this has not been done. Birkinshaw said the City of Cape Town, under whose Air Quality management plan the refinery now falls, had the ability to bring in by laws to prohibit the use of MMT.

“Not knowing it contains MMT, petrol is poured down drains after direct contact with skin at car repair shops, going into the stormwater and sewage systems. At filling stations, the attendants and public are contaminated with escaped vapours during re-fuelling”.

After 12 years of representing the rights of residents to have clean air, he has learned a thing or two about the ‘ploys used by the oil industry’.

“In 1994, Chevron promised to reduce their sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 80%, wanting to be perceived as having good intent”, said Birkinshaw. Sulphur dioxide is a noxious chemical which triggers asthma and has affected many residents. Just as the TVRA were about to sign a Good Neighbour agreement with Chevron, they received word that Engen were simultaneously using the same technique on south Durban residents. During one of the Chevron public meetings he received the worst shock of all. “The then-manager of Caltex (Chevron) said to him: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do or say, we are going to continue doing what we do until we are forced to change by law”.

But the battles haven’t all been in vain. Several years ago the TVRA took air samples from the refinery’s fence line revealing carcinogenic benzene levels to be eight times higher than the World Health guidelines. This assisted in getting the new Air Quality Bill actioned. “Now we’re sitting with problems around implementing it”, said Birkinshaw.

Collaborating on a health study with the now-deceased Professor Neill White in 2003 provided necessary proof of Chevron’s disastrous impact. “Involving over 3000 pupils at 17 schools in the area, this international study of asthma and allergies in children proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Chevron is a major contributor to respiratory problems in the area”.

Two incidents at the Chevron tank farm have already been reported to the Health Department since January this year, with ‘token fines being issued and Chevron continuing to pollute’.

At the end of January when a tank roof leaked petroleum waste into the air, residents and workers were put at risk when high levels of benzene, toulene and xylenes were found. On 10 March a re-occurrence of the same caused neighbours to be ‘gassed out and hardly able to deeply inhale’. When residents phoned to complain, the Chevron spokesperson admitted the problem with the damaged pipe.

But this is what acting Director, Ivan Bromfield of the City of Cape Town’s Health Department responded with:
“The City has previously acted (January 2006) against Chevron regarding an emanation nuisance from their facility. On Monday 13 March we were notified of an odour nuisance which allegedly occurred on 10 March. Immediate investigation failed to confirm that such still existed at the time of investigation”.
However, it doesn’t take a chemical engineer to calculate that investigating an incident three days after it’s occurrence would reveal nothing.

Such defeatist strategies are not putting the likes of environmental NGO groundWork’s Bobby Peek off the trail. “Air sample results from the Chevron incident of January are due back from the United States shortly. And, from what we already know, quite frankly the City is lying and fraudulent if they continue to say there’s no impact on surrounding communities. Until now, they’ve just sat back regarding Chevron”, said Peek, whose organisation is financially assisting the TVRA with the testing.

Peek believes ineffective monitoring at refineries is responsible for much damage. “In 2001, more than a million litres were leaked under community homes in south Durban as a result of a rusty pipeline. It was only detected when a public member smelled it near a stormwater drain. Imagine if he had lit a cigarette there”.

Not surprisingly, there is a lupus (an auto-immune disease) cluster in south Durban, a disease often found in heavily industrialised areas.

Subsequently, a big concern of groundWork’s is that of fence line sampling on site and fence line monitoring. Small tubes are currently used at the fence line which absorb chemical emissions, but this is not effective in ‘real time’ monitoring of damage. “Refineries nationwide say they have monitors, but they are passive monitors which measure over a day/week/an eight hour period. Monitoring over days, this method is too broad and works on averages, so you never see peaks. But for residents, the impact is all about peaks, as it is in certain moments that inhalation (and damage) takes place”.

With some hope, he added that: “The New Air Quality Act says there will be emission and air quality standards — that all industry in South Africa will be re-licensed over the next few years”, he said.

Regarding fence line monitoring, Peter Lukey, Director of Air Quality Management at the DEAT, said that most of Chevron’s pollution goes over the fence. “However, the new Act and new license says they have to do emission and fence line monitoring.”

Bang in the middle of suburban restaurants and the deep blue sea is Chevron’s effluent pipe. Kitesurfers and swimmers believe this is what has rendered them unable to breathe there. Refinery effluent is brought through various stages and evaporation ponds at the refinery, pumped out of this pipe and into the sea. After 12 years of resistance, Chevron has finally agreed to upgrade their effluent system. But Birkinshaw thinks the timing merely happens to be good due to Chevron’s permit being up for renewal, rather than a demonstration of any voluntary goodwill to its neighbours.

Environmental law professor Jan Glazewski believes the new Act has created a huge bureaucracy. “New legislation asks what amounts of the various pollutants air should have, making it more difficult to pin down. Conditions in Chevron’s permit are too vague”.

While city slickers living near refineries may not be ready to don their own protective space suits, one thing’s certain. They will be holding their breath.