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Thanh Truong / Eyewitness News
Email: ttruong@wwltv.com | Twitter: @thanh412

GARYVILLE, La. -- The extent of the damage to a cooling tower at a petroleum refinery in Garyville is still being assessed, according to a spokesperson for Marathon Petroleum Corp., which owns and operates the refinery.

The National Weather Service confirms an EF-1 tornado touched down in St. John Parish Wednesday, causing damage at the refinery.

The Marathon facility in Garyville has a refining capacity of 522,000 barrels per day, making it the third largest of its kind in the United States.

Energy experts say the impact to the refinery shouldn't dramatically affect gas prices.

'I think you'll see a little short-term fluctuation, nothing really measurable, a couple of pennies maybe,' said Professor Eric Smith of the Tulane University Energy Institute.

Smith said that may change if the refinery stays offline for an extended time. Two refinery workers sustained minor injuries from the storm, but the depth of damage to equipment and infrastructure is less clear.

A spokesperson for the company said Wednesday's tornado damage to a cooling tower at one of the crude distillation units will take some time to repair.

'Once we've determined that time frame, we'll understand what the production impact is, but we are continuing to operate a second crude unit and other crude units in the refinery,' said Angelia Graves, a spokesperson for Marathon Petroleum Corp.

Wednesday's tornado also highlights the exposure of the numerous refineries in Louisiana to the elements. With 19 petroleum refineries, Louisiana is second only to Texas in the number of refineries in a state.

Many of the facilities are located in areas that can be prone to flooding, hurricanes and other natural disaster.

Professor Smith said most refineries are built to withstand punishment from wicked weather.

'Normally a refinery is hardened pretty well to withstand just about anything. That includes buildings that can withstand sustained hurricane force winds. When you're talking about flooding they have pumps and berms,' said Smith.

Some local environmentalists say such protections are not foolproof.

Ann Rolfes with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade said the oil and gas industry's primary focus is profits. Despite safety assurances from energy companies, Rolfes said they can do much more to improve the safety of people and the environment.

'The oil industry talks a good game, but if you look at the facts, which are their own reports following storms, they have a big problem,' shes aid. 'The Marathon refinery in Garyville in particular, a couple of years ago during Tropical Storm Isaac spilled over 12 million gallons of polluted water into Lake Maurepas and that was because they didn't have the capacity. And we're in Louisiana, and we know we're going to get a lot of rain.'

As the region prepares to enter hurricane season, the fortifications at refineries, adequate or not, could very well be tested.

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