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.
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.
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?”
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.”
Derailment in Martinez: the nightmare no one wants
By Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent – 05/01/2018
Early this morning, at least two tank cars carrying liquid petroleum gas (LPG) derailed while backing into the Shell Refinery in Martinez, CA. (See brief KTVU News coverage.)
Thank our lucky stars that those tank cars backing into the refinery did not tip over or leak! Had they done so, and a spark ignited a fire, the accident might’ve resulted in a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion, or “BLEVE” (blɛviː/ BLEV-ee).
Sharon Kelly described a BLEVE this way on DeSmogBlog: “As liquids in a metal tank boil, gasses build up, pressurizing the tank even despite relief valves designed to vent fumes. Tanks finally explode, throwing shrapnel great distances, and spitting out burning liquids that can start secondary blazes.”
BLEVEs were responsible for the massive degree of destruction and loss of life in Lac Magantic, Canada. If those Martinez tank cars had caught fire and erupted, the whole Shell Refinery might’ve blown up! Downtown Martinez, the AMTRAK station, and the 680 freeway might’ve been threatened.
Photos of the derailed cars show the 4-digit Hazardous Material Identification Placard: 1075. The Emergency Response Guidebook, published by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration identifies the code for 1075 on p. 31 as one of the following flammable materials:
In fires involving Liquefied Petroleum Gases (LPG) (UN1075); Butane, (UN1011); Butylene, (UN1012); Isobutylene, (UN1055); Propylene, (UN1077); Isobutane, (UN1969); and Propane, (UN1978), also refer to BLEVE – SAFETY PRECAUTIONS (Page 368).
BLEVE is defined : “A boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE, /ˈblɛviː/ BLEV-ee) is an explosion caused by the rupture of a vessel containing a pressurized liquid that has reached temperatures above its boiling point.”
Page 368-369 of the Emergency Response Guidebook reads as follows:
BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion)
The following section presents, in a two-page format, background information on BLEVEs and includes a chart that provides important safety-related information to consider when confronted with this type of situation involving Liquefied Petroleum Gases (LPG), UN1075. LPGs include the following flammable gases: Butane, UN1011; Butylene, UN1012; Isobutylene, UN1055; Propylene, UN1077; Isobutane, UN1969; and Propane, UN1978.
What are the main hazards from a BLEVE?
The main hazards from a propane or LPG BLEVE are:
– thermal radiation from the fire
The danger from these decreases as you move away from the BLEVE centre. The furthest reaching hazard is projectiles.
Benicia is the only Bay Area refinery town that does not have the community protection of an Industrial Safety Ordinance, or ISO.
In 1999, the city of Richmond and Contra Costa County adopted their interlocking ISOs. The Richmond ordinance mirrors the Contra Costa ISO, and Contra Costa County Hazardous Materials Division is responsible for enforcement and reporting.
Their experience with repeated refinery and associated hydrogen plant polluting events caused the elected leaders to respond to pressure from the disproportionally impacted communities in Richmond, Rodeo and Martinez for greater protection and information about polluting incidents.
How did Benicia miss out?
Since the adoption of the ISO, there have continued to be dangerous and deadly incidents at these Bay Area refineries, albeit at reduced rates, due to the ISO. Fortunately, the Richmond/Contra Costa ISO allows for corrective provisions that have improved refinery function and provided impacted communities with timely investigative information.
Under the ISOs, a 72-hour post incident report is available to the public. Monthly reports, or more frequently if necessary, follow that report and are publicly posted. To date, neither the Benicia City Council nor the people of Benicia have received any official reports on the nearly monthlong Valero flaring disaster this past May.
Based on the success of the Richmond/Contra Costa ISO, the California legislature adopted some of the process safety management portions of the ISO and made them state law, going into effect in October.
Unfortunately, the legislature did not adopt all elements of the ISOs. Benicia’s ability to receive information, publish the results of investigations to the public and to require Valero to take corrective action simply does not exist. Can we wait for the legislature to strengthen the state law?
While Valero and PG&E point the finger at each other over who is at fault for the Valero flaring disaster in May, Benicia remains in the dark. We know Valero was given permits to construct an adequate backup generator system but only one co-generator was built and the permit for the other was allowed to expire after several extensions, probably because of Valero’s bureaucrats in Texas.
Do we Benicians think we can count on Texas oil men to put our health and safety ahead of their profits? The lesson we learned from the successful battle to stop Valero’s dangerous Crude-By-Rail Project is the company seems to stop at nothing to ensure their profits – even at the expense of Benicians.