‘Too toxic’: Refinery fires leave East Texas residents reeling
Three dangerous blazes in three weeks have struck refineries and a chemical plant, leaving one dead and over a dozen injured
Washington Post, by Amudalat Ajasa, May 20, 2023
First Shell, then Marathon, then Valero. In the last three weeks, major fires have broken out at these companies’ oil refineries and chemical plants in East Texas, leaving one dead and over a dozen injured.
The blazes in Deer Park, Galveston Bay and Corpus Christi follow a years-long string of explosions, fires and toxic releases in a region where oil refining and chemical production is highly concentrated, often close to residential neighborhoods. And while some residents have grown accustomed to the incidents, others are alarmed by how frequently they are hitting home.
“I have grown up here and watched neighborhoods near the refineries become too toxic to live in and people forced to leave their homes due to the toxicity,” Kristina Land, a resident of Corpus Christi, told The Washington Post.
On Wednesday, a fire broke out at the Valero West Refinery in Corpus Christi, sending smoke plumes into the sky and prompting emergency responders to mobilize. The cause of the fire is yet unknown.
Land, who is 45 years old, was in her home 20 miles from the refinery when she saw the black smoke on the horizon. She had to go on social media to find out what was happening.
She blames local officials for not encouraging more transparency.
“Our local government doesn’t ever want us to know how bad [the fires] really are, so we never truly know,” Land said. “They just sweep everything under the rug and never talk about it again.”
Refineries in the Lone Star State are regulated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which did not make officials available for an interview, but issued a statement.
Victoria Cann, a media specialist for TCEQ, said the three recent fires appear to be unrelated, “but investigations are underway into the cause, response, and clean up actions associated with each incident.”
She said the agency responded to each of them by deploying staff with monitoring equipment as appropriate and has “conducted surveillance to assess potential impacts to the local community.”
The first of the May refinery fires happened two weeks ago.
On May 5, heavy gas oil, gasoline and light gas oil ignited at Shell’s Deer Park chemicals facility in Deer Park, which sent 9 workers to the hospital. The plume from the fire, which occurred right outside of Houston, was visible for miles.
The fire, which started at 2:59 p.m., blazed on and off for days — after being reignited multiple times — before crews could completely neutralize it nearly three days later.
Emergency crews responded to the fire less than 19 hours after the TCEQ hosted a hearing to expand the Intercontinental Terminal Plant — a plant near Shell which blanketed the area with high levels of benzene, a chemical linked to cancer, in 2019.
Environmentalists say the accidents keep happening because the oil industry has little fear of penalties from regulators.
“Without a change from industry … communities are going to continue to feel the effects of these chemicals being spewed out by these facilities,” said Cassandra Casados, the communications coordinator at Air Alliance Houston.
A week after Shell’s fire was contained, a new plant fire erupted in Texas City, under 40 miles away, erupted. Galveston’s Marathon Petroleum confirmed that the fire caused the death of one employee and sent two others to the hospital. Emergency crews extinguished the fire — caused by a failed pump seal — in under four hours, according to city officials.
This is the second fatal incident to occur at Marathon’s Galveston Bay refinery this year. In March, a contract worker died after being electrocuted at the refinery.
Air monitoring at the state and facility level for all three sites is ongoing to determine the exposure risks to harmful levels of chemicals. Officials at the refineries and in nearby communities said the fires were not cause for concern:
- “There is no danger to the nearby community,” Shell Deer Park said in a post following the incident.
- Texas City Emergency Management stated that there was no need for a shelter in place following the fatal fire and that there was no threat to residents.
- Valero’s west refinery did not warrant any “action from the community,” the city of Corpus Christi said in a news release.
Over the last several years, the Environmental Integrity Project — a D.C. based watchdog group — has monitored refinery fires and emissions, in East Texas and elsewhere. Too often, local officials minimize the impact of these incidents and issue “all is well statements,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former Environmental Protection Agency official who directs the watchdog group.
Black plume smoke is usually indicative that fine particulate matter — too small to see generally — is lingering in the air, according to Schaeffer. When refineries catch fire, the chemicals from the plumes aren’t contained to the site: They drift into residential areas.
“You’re going to have a lot of pollutants released,” Schaeffer said of these incidents. “That’s probably the biggest concern for the residents.”
- Valero’s Community Advisory Panel (CAP) invites Benicia residents to learn about air monitoring and incident response at Benicia Refinery June 13, 2023
- Valero Slapped with 1.2-Million Penalty for Toxic Flaring in Benicia
- Benicia Herald: ‘Refineries failing at fenceline monitoring’
- BCAMP ACTION ALERT: Tell Our Air District That Valero Is Failing
As Air Quality is so essential to our health, you might want to check out these resources:
- Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program website
- Smell My City (On Apple App Store, or on Google Play Store)
- Refinery Air Watch website
- Please – anyone can report Air Quality issues/events to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District: General Public Information: (415) 749-4900, or Air Quality Complaints: 1-800-334-ODOR (6367)