Massive refinery fire in Texas left to burn itself out

Repost from The Houston Chronicle
[Editor: Benicia’s worst nightmare…  – R.S.]

To Deer Park residents, fire a reminder of ‘like living on a fault line’

Samantha Ketterer and Emily Foxhall March 18, 2019 Updated: March 18, 2019 4:37 p.m.
Petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company Monday, March 18, 2019, in Deer Park, Texas. | Photo: Godofredo A. Vasquez/Staff photographer

Jodie Thompson pulled over on Independence Parkway, less than a mile away from a petrochemical plant that was leaking plumes of black smoke into the sky.

In her 34 years living in Deer Park, she’d seen flares before. But this was different.

“I trust that they actually know what they’re doing, but inside, I have this doubt,” Thompson said Monday afternoon, watching the flames from inside the safety of her car.

The fire had raged at Intercontinental Terminals Company for more than 26 hours by the early afternoon and spread to eight holding tanks. Even after a shelter-in-place was lifted Monday morning, the fire was still expected to burn for two more days.

The ordeal, in some ways, was part of life in Deer Park, an east Harris County city of more than 33,000 people. Residents said they were familiar with the risks that come with living by the refineries and chemical plants. At a certain point, you have to stop worrying, they said.

“You can’t fret about it,” said Thompson, who is 60. “What are you going to do? You choose to live here.”

Holly Ball, 47, is a newer resident to Deer Park, having lived in the city for just a year. She’s noticed the puffing smoke stacks at the refineries, of course, but wasn’t aware of a threat like this, she said.

Like Thompson and many other residents on Monday, Ball parked her car to take photos of the smoke spreading miles west into Houston. She planned to send them to her friends in Louisiana.

“It’s scary,” she said. Her dog barked in the seat next to her. “It’s scary.”

On Facebook, people responded to official updates with more questions. They wanted to know more about what exactly was happening and what the risks were to their health.

Would the city of Deer Park be evacuated? Was it possible the plant would explode? The shelter-in-place had been in Deer Park, but what about people in the close-by city of Pasadena? And in La Porte?

Some people wrote of alarm sirens that should have gone off but haven’t worked for some time. Even with the shelter-in-place lifted, looking up at the sky, it was hard for many to believe air quality was fine. Some wrote of symptoms they were experiencing.

WHAT WE DISCOVERED: A HoustonChronicle.com investigation found dangerous chemicals create hidden dangers

One person said she had trouble breathing overnight. Two others wrote of burning sensations in their eyes. Another person decided to leave the area because their child was having trouble breathing. Some said they were simply nervous to sleep.

Bernice Oehrlein, 78, pushed a cart in the morning through the Food Town grocery store in Deer Park, about 5 miles southwest of the plant. She recently had a bad bout with pneumonia, so the fire is concerning for health reasons, she said.

“I have a hard time breathing anyways,” Oehrlein said.

At a Starbucks just down the road, Cindy Richards and her daughter drank coffee instead of going on their normal Monday walk.

Richards, a 67-year-old who lives in Pasadena, recalled the drive to Deer Park, before she realized a fire had clouded up the sky.

“I was like, ‘It’s a little overcast,'” she said. But then, “I come a little closer – ‘That’s smoke.'”

Richards doesn’t pay too much attention to the factories anymore, although she said they used to be more top-of-mind when she lived off of Sims Bayou, closer to some of the refineries.

Her daughter, 35-year-old Robyn French, lives close to the plant in Deer Park with her husband and two children. Flares, smoke and a gassy smell have become a normal occurrence, and she knows what to do in the case of an explosion.

But French knew better than to ignore the smoke on Monday, even though she said she felt fairly safe.

She made sure Sunday and Monday that her son wasn’t outside on his bike, breathing in anything possibly dangerous. And the unknown is still concerning.

“Am I still able to eat the Swiss chard and kale I’m growing in my garden?” she asked. “That’s a valid question to me. Will my oranges be full of chemicals when they’re full grown?”

IN THE AIR: What you need to know about the chemicals

Heather Trevino, 42, grew up in Deer Park and lives there now with her 9-year-old daughter. She said she had taken shelter before, but didn’t recall an incident as long and intense as this one.

Trevino saw the smoke rising above her neighbor’s roof Sunday. Her eyes and throat itched. When she got the alert to shelter-in-place, she knew to bring in her two dogs and shut off the A/C.

Trevino faintly heard the sound of the alarms that she said are tested every Saturday at noon. She put on some movies for her daughter, who also learned in school what to do when a shelter-in-place was ordered.

“We kind of get it ingrained in us,” Trevino said. “Living here, it’s just kind of part of what you accept, that there’s something that could possibly happen.”

Thompson likened it to an earthquake-prone area.

“It’s probably like living on a fault line,” she said. “It doesn’t happen very often, but the possibility is always there. In the back of your mind, you push it back. It’s out of your control.”

Anthony, a 36-year-old who works at a nearby plant, said he had to take the day off because of his workplace’s proximity to ITC. He declined to give his last name because of his employer.

While Anthony said he didn’t believe the air quality in the area is particularly bad because of the incident, he’s still concerned of the possibility of an explosion.

“It’s not anything that can really be taken lightly,” he said. “There is a flash point.”

    TODAY! Town Hall with U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson Monday, March 18

    Repost from Progressive Democrats of Benicia

    TOWN HALL WITH CONGRESSMAN MIKE THOMPSON

    Congressman Mike Thompson will meet with us at a Town Hall here in Benicia TODAY, Monday, March 18.

    Click to download flyer

    Co-sponsored by Progressive Democrats of BeniciaCarquinez Patriotic Resistance, and Vallejo-Benicia Indivisible for Justice, the program will be held at the Benicia Senior Center, 187 East L St., 6:30 to 8:30 (doors open at 6:00).

    This is a special opportunity to hear from our Congressman and to ask him questions. He has been asked to focus on five specific issues in his opening remarks, with follow-up questions from the audience on these issues, and others time permitting. The five issues are:

    • Gun violence prevention
    • the Green New Deal / Global warming
    • Health Care
    • Taxes / Economic Inequality
    • Immigration

      Air District fines Valero for recent emission release violations

      Repost from KQED News
      [Editor: Significant quote: “The risk of these tiny particles getting into people’s lungs is yet another example of the dangers of living near a dirty refinery,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Communities should not have to be afraid of breathing in pollution that could affect their health.”  – R.S.]

      Air District Hits Valero With Violations Over Benicia Refinery Releases

      By Ted Goldberg, Mar 15, 2019
      A sooty plume, containing petroleum coke particulates, emerging from flare stacks this week at Valero’s Benicia refinery. (Solano County Department of Resource Management)

      Local air regulators have issued seven notices of violation against the Valero Energy Corp. over a malfunction at its Benicia refinery that has led to the release of petroleum coke dust from the facility since Monday.

      The problem has led to a response by four agencies: the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and Solano County health officials have launched investigations into the releases; the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration and the Benicia Fire Department are monitoring the situation.

      It’s unclear how long the problem will last.

      “Valero is telling us they are unable to give an estimate of when it will be resolved,” said Benicia Fire Chief Josh Chadwick.

      A Valero representative says the malfunction is tied to a device that removes particulates during a process that takes place inside the refinery.

      “We have been experiencing operational issues with the flue gas scrubber,” said company spokeswoman Lillian Riojas.

      That led to so-called coke fines — very small carbon particulates that are a byproduct of the oil refining process — being released from the refinery’s flare stacks.

      Normally, warm water vapor moves through the refinery’s towers and exits the stacks as steam, but the petcoke particulates make the plume appear dark and sooty.

      “The fines remained in the raw exhaust gas,” said Professor Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, specializing in refinery operations.

      “The dark smoke will continue until all of the fines in the lines leading to the exhaust stack have been cleared from the system,” Smith said.

      While the material is not hazardous, the releases could include trace amounts of heavy metals, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, Solano County’s assistant director of resource management.

      Valero’s Riojas did not respond to follow-up questions about the status of the scrubber that led to this week’s releases, but Benicia Fire’s Chadwick said Friday that “the maintenance issue has been resolved.”

      So far, air tests have not raised concerns among the agencies monitoring the site. Crews have not detected high levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide or particulate matter, according to Chadwick.

      And Schmidtbauer says the situation is slowly improving — the amount of coke dust coming from the facility has been lessening.

      Nevertheless, the air district has issued four notices of violation against Valero for visible emissions and three for public nuisance,  agency spokesman Ralph Borrmann said.

      The U.S. EPA says significant quantities of dust from pet coke can present a health risk.

      “The risk of these tiny particles getting into people’s lungs is yet another example of the dangers of living near a dirty refinery,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Communities should not have to be afraid of breathing in pollution that could affect their health.”

      The problem represents one of the more extensive malfunctions at the refinery since it lost all power on May 5, 2017, an event that led to a major release of pollution, shelter-in-place and evacuation orders.

        For safe and healthy communities…