Beginning on the site of former rice and sugarcane fields in Louisiana, the Norco Refinery has grown from a small refinery built in 1919 to become one of the largest manufacturing facilities for petrochemicals in the world today, with a production rate of over 200,000 barrels of oil processed daily.
Initially, the Norco Refinery operated under the New Orleans Refining Company name and processed crude oil from Mississippi. In its early years, the New Orleans Refining Company constructed a town with living quarters, recreational facilities and services for its employees and their families. Soon the company and refinery were being referred to by the shortened name Norco.
In 1929, Shell Oil purchased the Norco Refinery; it still maintains a shared ownership in the refinery with Saudi Aramco under the joint company name of Motiva.
Dangers to Employees
While the Norco Refinery, owned by Motiva LLC., on paper manufactures gasoline, jet fuel, heating oil, calcium chloride and ethylene, other more dangerous products have also been detected on the site. The Norco Refinery shares its location with its sister chemical processing plant. The 1,400 workers are evenly divided between these two locations, but the hazards from both the refinery and the chemical plant have been shared by all the Norco Manufacturing Complex employees.
A study conducted in 1999 by Shan Tsai Ph.D. et al. looked at the mortality rates of those who worked at any time at the Norco Refinery between 1973 until 1999 and the illness rate of those employed any time between 1990 to 1999. Their results showed that while lung cancer rates were lower than the general population, mesothelioma rates were higher. The only known cause for mesothelioma has long been suspected to be exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos in Norco Refining Company
In almost all of the last century, when heat or combustion was a concern, asbestos was selected as insulation. Facilities like Norco Refining Company, therefore, were often made with asbestos-containing materials. Along with being non-flammable and heat-proof, various forms of amphibole asbestos are also particularly impervious to reactive chemicals. Floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, work surfaces, even protective clothing, therefore, often contained the fibrous mineral. And although the asbestos did well in safeguarding against fire damage and in protecting people and equipment from extreme heat, the mineral also exposed those same people to significant health risks.
Amosite was almost always the variety of asbestos utilized in such plants. When it is mixed with chrysotile, which is impervious to heat and bases but not as resistant to acids, the amphibole amosite creates products that are especially good at preventing damage from corrosive chemicals. This amosite, in the form of asbestos transite, was used in chemical plants, laboratories and refineries across the United States for decades before it was banned as a construction material in the 1970s.
As with cement, asbestos transite could be sprayed onto pipes and ductwork and molded into working surfaces. As long as asbestos transite remained solid, this form of asbestos posed no immediate danger. However, when transite with asbestos containing material (ACM) aged, it became prone to becoming powdery, which caused the deadly, microscopic particles to float into the atmosphere. Asbestos when it is in this state is considered friable, a term that is used for material that is easily pulverized. Industrial ovens also frequently were constructed with friable asbestos as part of their insulation linings.
The Dangers of Friable Asbestos
Asbestos particles, when they are friable, are readily dispersed into the air. Diseases like cancer and asbestosis are known to result from breathing asbestos. In addition, asbestos exposure has been shown to be the leading cause of pleural mesothelioma, an unusual and frequently deadly disease affecting the mesothelium, which is the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity. If the airborne particles land on food or drinks and are then ingested, peritoneal or pericardial mesothelioma can occur, although they are rarer than pleural mesothelioma.
Because medical research led to a better understanding of the risks of asbestos exposure, workers today benefit from the protection offered by strict rules controlling how to use asbestos. However, when Norco Refining Company was built, the use of asbestos was much more commonplace. Before modern regulations were put into place, workers often toiled without respirators in spaces where asbestos particles filled the atmosphere.
A Time Bomb
Unlike typical workplace injuries, which are easily observed and known about immediately following the incident, asbestos-related diseases can take many, many years to develop. When a former employee starts exhibiting symptoms such as chest pain, breathlessness and chronic coughing, his or her physician might not immediately identify asbestos exposure as a cause, leading to a delay in diagnosis and treatment. Hence, it is extremely important for those who worked in or lived near places like Norco Refining Company to ask their health care professionals for mesothelioma information. Such information can assist physicians make a timely diagnosis; especially with mesothelioma, the earlier the diagnosis, the better the odds of survival using treatments like mesothelioma surgery.Sources
MotivaNorco.com - Motiva Norco History
Shan Tsai PhD. et al. - Mortality and Morbidity Study of Norco Refinery and Petrochemical Employees
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal