Exxon-Mobil operates two refineries in the Lone Star State, one in Baytown and the other in Beaumont. The Baytown facility is the largest in the United States with a capacity of 557,000 barrels per day. It is also one of the oldest, having been constructed just after the First World War by Exxon's corporate predecessor, the Humble Oil Company.
In 1988, Exxon began expanding its operations, deliberately neglecting to notify the Environmental Protection Agency as required by federal law; this violation went unnoticed by the EPA for over a decade. In 2008, damage inflicted by Hurricane Ike forced the shutdown of both Exxon-Mobil Texas refineries in addition to 22 others along the Gulf Coast.
A Recent Spill
Most recently, on January 25, 2010, a collision between a tugboat and the tanker Eagle Otome, on its way to deliver a shipment of crude oil to the Beaumont refinery, resulted in a spill equivalent to 11,000 barrels into the Sabine-Neches Waterway. According to a recent article in a San Antonio paper, Exxon-Mobile was subject to 23 fines for environmental violations in 2009.
Asbestos in Oil Refineries
In situations where excessive heat or flame was a risk, various forms of asbestos were the insulation preferred by builders in the majority of the last century. Plants like Exxon-Mobile refineries in Texas, as a result, were generally constructed using materials that contained asbestos. One of the other properties of various types of the fibrous mineral is that they are unaffected by chemical reactions. Due to the nature of the work that goes on in oil refineries, asbestos, therefore, was not only used in factory buildings, but also in safety clothing, benches and lab equipment. One of the ironic things with asbestos is that while it does a great job of protecting lives and property from the harm associated with fire or high temperatures - it is one of the best insulators known and has been used for this purpose since ancient times - it also poses serious risks to people's well being.
Most of the asbestos was of the amosite variety. Amosite is one of the amphibole varieties of the asbestos family of minerals and is commonly considered more prone to lead to disease than serpentine asbestos. Used for decades in the form of asbestos transite in refineries and labs across the United States, amosite was eventually prohibited from use for construction purposes in the 1970s.
As with cement, asbestos transite could be molded into working surfaces, laminated and sprayed onto ductwork and pipes. This form of asbestos did not offer a health risk as long as it was solid. However, as this transite aged, it was prone to crumbling, which caused the lethal, microscopic particles to flake off into the air. Asbestos in this condition is considered friable, or able to be crushed by hand pressure alone. Laboratory and chemical plant kilns also often were fabricated with friable asbestos in insulation linings.
Why Friable Asbestos Is a Problem
When friable, asbestos fibers are readily dispersed into the air. Breathing asbestos fibers can cause diseases like cancer or asbestosis. Pleural mesothelioma, an unusual but often fatal cancer affecting the mesothelium (the lining between the lungs and the pleural cavity), has been shown to be linked with asbestos exposure. If those particles of asbestos in the air land on food or drinks and are subsequently ingested, peritoneal or pericardial mesothelioma may result, though they are less common than pleural mesothelioma.
Because scientific inquiry resulted in increased awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure, workers today are protected by stringent laws regulating how to use asbestos. The use of asbestos was much more common, however, when plants such as Exxon-Mobile refineries in Texas were built. Any asbestos that remains from then can yet pose a health hazard if people are not careful during remodeling projects.
The Hidden Danger of Asbestos
One of the insidious aspects of exposure to asbestos is the resulting diseases can take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to manifest - often decades after the worker has left the employer. The symptoms of mesothelioma and asbestosis - shortness of breath and chest pain - may easily be confused with the symptoms of other disorders. It is very important, therefore, that folks that worked in or spent much time near sites such as Exxon-Mobile refineries in Texas ask their health care professionals for a mesothelioma treatment guide. Such information can enable physicians to make accurate diagnoses; especially with mesothelioma, the earlier it is diagnosed, the better the odds of survival or at the least of improved quality of life. While currently there is no mesothelioma cure, the disease can sometimes be treated with various therapies.Sources
Burke, Jordan and Aaron Clarke - Ike Forces Shutdown of 19% of U.S. Refining Capacity
Clark, James A. and Mark Odinitz - Exxon Company U.S.A.
McFarland, John - Total, Exxon-Mobil Most Fined Polluters in Texas (San Antonio Express-News, 6 December 2009)
Reuters - FACTBOX - Texas Waterway Oil Spill
Reuters - Exxon Begins Damage Assessments at Texas Refineries
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal
US Energy Information Administration - U.S. Refineries Operable Capacity