Report: EPA-funded group misleads public, government agencies

Michael Bastasch | Contributor

An EPA-funded environmental group has been disseminating misleading data about refineries to make them appear to be more dangerous than they actually are in order to invite federal intervention, according to a report to be released early this week.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been bankrolling a project by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a state-based environmental group, called the Refinery Efficiency Initiative which has been presenting misleading information to the media and to regulators, according to a report by the Pelican Institute, a Louisiana-based think tank.

“[The Louisiana Bucket Brigade] refinery transparency initiative bankrolled with taxpayer money has flooded the public with murky, inaccurate data, thereby defeating the original goal,” according to the report.

This EPA region has been caught up in controversy before as former Director Al Armendariz compared his approach to enforcing regulations on hydraulic fracking to that of Roman crucifixions in a 2010 video, saying “they’d find the first five guys they saw and they’d crucify them.” He resigned and was later hired by the Sierra Club, a current funder of LABB.

LABB’s Refinery Efficiency Initiative aims to educate the public by gathering data on unplanned plant emissions, using the refinery industry’s own data, according to the report. The program’s stated goal is to “collaborate with refinery communities and gain a comprehensive understanding of unauthorized discharges to the air and water from Louisiana refineries.”

“Alas, the LABB’s data isn’t close to being accurate — the research it has provided to the press, the public and the EPA makes the refineries appear to be operating in a dangerous and cavalier manner,” the report continues.

The report claims the EPA knows that LABB is presenting misleading data to the public but has done nothing to stop the behavior.

According to the report, LABB’s refinery initiative gives the group the illusion of being a partner in the regulatory process. It allows the group to falsely portray itself as an authority on refinery operations to the public and allows the group to to manipulate data to further its own agenda with the public and the regulatory agencies like OSHA and the EPA.

Former Peace Corps volunteer Anne Rolfes founded LABB in 2000 to train citizens to collect air samples “using a low-cost, EPA-approved plastic bucket,” according to their 2001 IRS tax return, targeting people living on the perimeter of Louisiana refineries.

The group lists many funding sources, including the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the Sierra Club and the EPA. And over the years LABB has increasingly become funded through taxpayer dollars.

LABB has increasingly begun to tailor its activities to match the EPA’s Environmental Justice Program, a source of grants in the past and likely the future, according to the report.

“Environmental justice grants support efforts to raise awareness about local health and environmental concerns,” said Lisa Garcia, the EPA’s senior adviser to the administrator for environmental justice, in a statement. “By supporting local projects in under-served communities, communities are able to develop plans and partnerships that will continue to improve their local environment and better protect human health into the future.”

LABB appears to have been the largest recipient of environmental justice grants in the state. In total, the EPA’s database says it has given nine grants to LABB totaling $449,000 — though these are likely double-counted according to the report.

The Pelican Institute estimates that the group has most likely gotten $214,500 from the EPA in grants and awards.

In 2009, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation gave LABB $25,000 to launch its Refinery Efficiency Initiative around this time as well, according to the report. Though no clear date is given, it is somewhere between between 2007 and 2009. However, one thing is clear, that it’s completely bankrolled by the EPA.

The group has received taxpayer grants to the tune of $84,500 to run the refinery initiative which the EPA says will “review the [state] incident reports that detail [refinery] discharges from 2005-08. They will educate neighbors through information sessions with the communities.”

According to the Pelican Institute, there is no “smoking gun” to show LABB is manipulating data, but there is evidence that LABB is loose with facts or employing “slipshod” data gathering techniques.

LABB says it gathers its refinery incident data from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, which gets its data from refinery industry reports, but LABB doesn’t disclose the methods it uses to gather such data nor does the group seem to have controls on how its staff presents it to the public.

At an August 2012 public meeting sponsored by the EPA, a LABB staffer declared that ExxonMobil’s two Louisiana facilities experienced more than 935 incidents over the past year — more than ten times the number LABB usually cites, which is already inflated.

On a flyer, the group says that the ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge, the second largest refinery in the country, alone had 778 incidents over a seven year period ending in June 2012, but the state’s numbers say Exxon’s refinery only had 202 incidents over that period.

In a 2012 letter to the EPA, LABB urged the agency to put the Exxon refinery high on their list of enforcements and actions, arguing the refinery had 709 incidents between 2005 and 2011. At the same time, the groups online database recorded 772 incidents.

In the groups 2011 Common Ground report, they said the Exxon refinery had 407 incidents between 2008 and 2010, while the group’s online database says there were 414. The state’s numbers say the refinery had only 139 incidents total during that time.

“The Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s characterization of our safety culture is wrong,” an ExxonMobil Baton Rouge spokesperson said in an email to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Nothing is more important to us than the safety and health of our employees, contractors and those who live and work around our operations.”

The Exxon spokesperson told TheDC News Foundation that they have a good relationship with the community, try to keep neighbors informed, and support health, education, and environmental programs in the area.

The Bucket Brigade has also staged one demonstration outside the state capitol where they held up an effigy of the plant’s manager while playing the song “Mr. Big Stuff.”

In one publication, LABB did disclose why its numbers were different from industry figures, arguing “the EPA sets emissions levels at which companies must report such incidents. ‘[O]ur accident total differs from the refineries and even the LDEQ because we include all such accidents.'”

The discrepancies did not go unnoticed, as early on the LDEQ sent a letter to the regional EPA director detailing a half-dozen “serious” factual discrepancies in a version of LABB’s Common Ground report. The EPA essentially ignored them.

“More disturbing is the fact that the EPA is well-aware the LABB is disseminating inaccurate ‘data,’ as evidenced by a 2010 complaint letter it received from the State of Louisiana,” according to the report.

“The EPA has done nothing to rein in the LABB’s unethical behavior, thereby arguably contributing to an adversarial relationship between the federal regulator and state and local regulators,” the report added.

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