Asbestos Use in Oil Refineries
Asbestos products used throughout Louisiana’s petrochemical industry
The fibrous mineral asbestos was widely utilized in industrial applications throughout the 1900s. Known by asbestos manufacturers to be a lethal toxin since the 1930s, asbestos was nevertheless heralded in the oil and gas industry for its superior heat- and corrosion-resistant properties.
Manufacturers of deadly asbestos products knew their goods were capable of causing numerous diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer and, later, the deadly cancer mesothelioma, which can attack the linings of the lung, abdomen and heart. Yet these manufacturers, and the owners of the industrial plants that used the products, kept these dangerous secrets, exposing millions of innocent workers to the cancer-causing carcinogen every day.
Refineries big business in Louisiana
Rapid exploration and development of oilfields near Lafayette and the subsequent discovery of abundant oil reserves outside Shreveport positioned Louisiana as a prominent player in the growing oil-refining industry. In the early 1900s, vast tracts of agricultural land were available at modest prices for drilling and refining. In addition to an abundance of accessible raw materials, Louisiana also featured the massive Mississippi River, which enabled oceangoing vessels to navigate two hundred miles upstream. The river provided ample water for industrial processes, and the levee system afforded protection from spring floods.
Combined with state policies that were exceptionally accommodating to industrial manufacturers, Louisiana became the location of choice for three early refinery companies, which selected sites along the lower Mississippi River between 1909 and 1929. Standard Oil Company selected a site just beyond the urbanized area of Baton Rouge to build its first refinery in 1909. Owned now by ExxonMobil, the Baton Rouge refinery is still the fifth largest refinery in the United States and the thirteenth largest in the world. It was also the first refinery to build a fluid catalytic cracking plant, which more efficiently converts crude oil into gasoline, higher-octane gases and other petroleum products. The catalytic cracking plant began operations in 1942.
The refinery near Baton Rouge, and other refineries near Chalmette and Norco, were constructed well beyond those cities’ boundaries. The locations of these three initial sites enabled the companies to avoid urban nuisance regulations and to adhere to industry expectations regarding safe locations. More refineries soon followed. But constructing refineries away from populated areas did not protect the workers who toiled inside.
Petroleum refining saw heavy asbestos use
Oil refineries across Louisiana made use of numerous products containing asbestos starting in the early 1900s and extending through the 1970s. The process of refining crude oil involves boiling the gooey fluid until gases are released, which allows their various chemical components to be separated into gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel and heating oil, among other products. The chemicals are then transported via extensive piping systems to complex chemical processing units in other areas of the refinery.
The fluids and gases traveling through all this piping need to be kept at certain temperatures to maintain their desired molecular structure. For decades, these extensive networks of piping were covered with asbestos insulation and, in some cases, even the piping itself was constructed of asbestos-reinforced cement, since the fibrous mineral was so resistant to corrosive substances.
The refinery workers who were charged with installing, repairing and maintaining miles of heavily insulated pipe inside a typical refinery did so around the clock, tearing off the worn and fraying asbestos pipe covering and sawing new pieces to fit into place, all of which generated asbestos dust that swirled around the workers and anyone else in the vicinity. Microscopic asbestos fibers, inhaled or ingested by the tradesmen, burrowed into the linings of lungs and abdomens, where the needlelike fibers were naturally resistant to the body’s ability to break down and flush out foreign substances.
Boilermakers, electricians, pipefitters, welders and millwrights all worked in close proximity to pipe insulators at oil refineries, as did those who controlled pumping systems, operated processing units and maintained equipment necessary to refinery operations. And, likewise, these trades also utilized asbestos-containing products in the course of their own refinery work.
Boilermakers installed, repaired and maintained the massive steam turbines and boilers that powered a refinery’s many processes. These boilers and turbines were heavily insulated with a variety of asbestos products, including refractory cement, block insulation and thick asbestos blankets. Along with pipefitters, boilermakers often had to cut asbestos pipe covering with a keyhole saw to install over steam pipes, dump dry asbestos refractory cement into mortar boxes and wheelbarrows, mix the powdered cement with water to trowel over firebrick, and cut sheets of asbestos block insulation with a handsaw to apply to the sides of tanks, boilers and other vessels. All of these activities generated asbestos dust.
Refinery millwrights installed, repaired, and overhauled large and small rotating equipment, including steam and gas turbines, gearboxes, pumps, compressors, and conveyor belt systems. Pumps and valve stems were packed with asbestos roping, which needed regular replacement after fraying under sustained pressure. All the while, working around the other trades noted above.
When installing asbestos gaskets at pipe joints and in the numerous pumps found in any typical refinery, these tradesmen could not help but generate dust while grinding off the old gaskets before replacing them with new. Even the new asbestos gaskets and rope packing had to be cut and then pounded into place, spewing even more asbestos fibers into the air around the workers. These activities needlessly put thousands of tradesmen at risk of developing deadly asbestos diseases at a time when asbestos manufacturers knew of the dangers and purposely failed to warn or protect them.
The relative rarity of malignant mesothelioma makes receiving a diagnosis of the asbestos cancer all the more devastating. Documenting how you were exposed to asbestos is a critical first step in determining whether you can file suit against the asbestos manufacturers who failed to warn you about its deadliness. It is important that you seek legal counsel as soon as possible. Baron & Budd can help. Contact us online or call us at 855-280-7664 to learn more about your legal options.