Thursday, November 23, 2006

Incident at Exxon Mobil's chemical plant in Singapore

UPDATE (MAY 3): Click here for details on the fire.

This posting received a remarkably high number of search-engine hits on Dec 19, 2006. If you have questions or information about flaring at Exxon Mobil in Singapore, please email me (address posted on the left side). I'll try to pursue this further.

SINGAPORE - There was a giant plume of smoke over the Western side of Singapore this week, but the local media did its best to avoid the story. An incident the at a the ExxonMobil Jurong Island Petrochemical complex in Singapore was not deemed worthy of serious news coverage; a giant plume of smoke was merely deemed a fascinating spectacle -- an event unworthy of anything more than a front page photo. And also there was a report at Stomp-- a fairly obscure website owned by Media Corp -- where Singaporeans sent reports about "big ball of smoke in the Western Sky." An absence of investigative reporting characterized the media coverage of the event. One Singaporean wrote into Stomp:
Who says this is nothing. It sounds like a serious mishap at the refinery. The flame could be seen all over Singapore. It was -- and still is - BIG. Many thought it could be a terrorist attack. So, it is the responsibility of Exxon and the media -- like MediaCorpse (sic) -- to come out with early announcements to tell Singapore that nothing untoward has occurred. But nothing was done until so bloody late.
This readers comments are understandable to me. Why, I wondered myself, did the city-state's main newspaper take two days to report this incident? I first learned about the plume of smoke from the photo published in the Thursday edition of the New Straights Times. Here's what the photo caption said about the cause of the smoke:
The fire was caused by the burning of excess gases resulting from the petrol distillation process.

These gasses are usually broken down by hydrocarbon process units. But the units had to be shut down after the compressor tripped, so the gases had to be burnt off via the flare stacks for safety reason, the company said. ExxonMobil said their was no risk to the public.
When journalists consider they are doing their duty to the community by serving as a conduit for corporation's reassurances (remember the Exxon Valdez?), I can't help but wonder -- like the reader who wrote in to Stomp -- what's really going on here?

The ExxonMobil website provides some background on the recently constructed petrochemical plant:
The grassroots US$2 billion petrochemical facility, the company's single largest investment in the Asia Pacific region, has four plants designed to deliver a wide range of petrochemical products to customers. Its centerpiece is an 800,000-ton-per-year steam cracker, which produces ethylene, propylene and other products for several downstream chemical plants in and around Singapore. The facility also features a 480,000-ton-per-year polyethylene plant, the largest single reactor plant of its type in the world, a 315,000-ton-per-year polypropylene plant, a 150,000-ton-per-year oxo alcohol plant and a 155-megawatt cogeneration unit that provides power to both the refinery and the chemical plant.
This is the webpage where Exxon Mobil posts press releases related to its operations in Singapore. Here is some more information about the facility from a chemicals industry website. Finally, here is a website that explores ExxonMobil Corporation's appalling safety record.

In attempting to investigate the situation further, I discovered there is no Greenpeace office in either Singapore or Malaysia (these being the least democratic countries in the region). The leading industry in Singapore's robust economy is petrochemicals. Giant factories on the smaller offshore islands produce the stuff -- with little oversight by environmental NGOs it would seem. On the plus side Singapore's civil service is well paid and has a reputation for competence, but on the other hand, this does not strike me as a culture that rewards whistle-blowing.

Singapore could well be the future of Asia: the corporation-state. Some might go so far as to claim Singapore "proves" that democracy is unnecessary for economic prosperity and social stability in a multi-ethnic society. To me, Singapore demonstrates what happens when a country gets really lucky and finds itself blessed with a brilliant, fairly benevolent, and exceptionally long-lived philosopher-king. But what happens to this little wonder of Southeast Asia after Lee Kuan Yew passes on is any one's guess.

However we account for its economic success, Singapore remains small and vulnerable. It would only take only one environmental mishap to ruin the miracle. To ensure that day never arrives, Singapore should welcome environmental groups and encourage serious journalism. In the long run, more citizen oversight today will be good for business tomorrow.

If you have questions, concerns, or new information relating to Exxon Mobil operations in Singapore, please email me (address posted on the left side).

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