Community meeting following Exxon fire turns heated as residents express concerns

Updated: Feb. 19, 2020 at 9:34 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - A week removed from the fire that lit up the night sky in Baton Rouge, residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the ExxonMobil refinery had their first chance to vent frustrations at the company.

A day after ExxonMobil releases its 7-day report about a fire at its Baton Rouge refinery, lawmaker Cleo Fields held a community meeting to determine if legislation should be introduced to “ensure the safety of the state’s citizens.”

ExxonMobil’s report was released Tuesday, Feb. 18. According to the report, sulfuric acid was released above allowable amounts. The meeting was called by Fields in an effort to figure out what changes need to be made to protect residents and prevent a situation like this from happening again.

“I want a meaningful dialogue,” Fields said as he urged residents inside the packed Star of Bethlehem Baptist sanctuary.

Those efforts were mostly in vain as the conversation turned heated from the get go. Residents repeatedly aired frustrations at the fact that most never received a notification from Exxon or the city about the fire.

“People need to know as quickly as they can to make decisions as quickly as they can and not be governed,” said one of the women in attendance.

Exxon representatives made an attempt to calm the heated debate by explaining what caused the delay.

“I’m in a battle, okay? You need to understand that and I have to make sure that firefighter goes home to his family at night, so it’s going to be a minute for us to set up, get our tactics in order, and get ready to go and get set up before I can contact public affairs, the environmental or whoever,” an Exxon employ said to the crowd. “Those guys want to get the information to you.”

The attempts mostly did not work as the crowd still seemed agitated about the situation.

“What is going on with Exxon and all, anybody else?” asked member in the crowd. “I need to know that if I need to get my great grand baby up out of the bed, where to take her, which route to take.”

Cleo Fields said he will now take all the input from the meeting to help shape legislation. He has until Feb. 26 to pre-file any bills for the upcoming session.

ExxonMobil officials said Thursday, Feb. 13 that two potentially cancer-causing chemicals were also released during the fire; benzene and butadiene. Both amounts were above the limits in which ExxonMobil must report to the Department of Environmental Quality, representatives said.

Exxon representatives told WAFB alerts were sent out to residents within a one-mile radius of the refinery.

Those alerts reportedly went out around 12:20 a.m, an hour after the fire was discovered and were sent in the form of a pre-recorded phone call.

WAFB reporters canvassed the neighborhoods surrounding the refinery. No one who answered the door said they received any kind of alert from Exxon.

Representatives later told WAFB only those who signed up for its Code Red alerts received the messages.

Sign up for Code Red alerts by clicking the link here.

Exxon representatives noted the company was working on improving the alert system, however, no further information was sent on the matter.

A timeline of the events the night of the fire on Feb. 11 can be found by clicking the link here.

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