"Huge toxic release at BP Texas refinery just before Gulf blowout
By Lynn Herrmann
Source Digital Journal
"Texas City - A huge release of toxic chemicals from BP’s Texas City refinery, lasting for 40 days, occurred just two weeks before the energy giant began making headlines with its Gulf of Mexico catastrophe.
In a decision based on producing and selling gasoline, trouble-plagued BP released tens of thousands of pounds of known toxins into the Texas City, Texas skies, an event that began on April 6 and lasted for 40 days.
In a ProPublica
report, BP estimates it released 538,000 pounds during the upset. The release began when a vital component of the ultracracker went offline. The company’s ultracracker is an integral part of processing crude oil into gasoline and other petroleum products and can process 65,000 barrels of oil per day.
The company replaced the malfunctioning equipment while keeping the plant in operation. As a result, among the 538,000 pounds of released chemicals are 17,000 pounds of benzene, a known carcinogenic agent; 37,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides, a respiratory problem contributor; and 186,000 pounds of carbon monoxide.
The component that malfunctioned, a hydrogen compressor, traps harmful chemicals which are then reused for fuel at the plant as well as other purposes, the report notes. Once the compressor failed to operate, BP sent the gases to a 300-foot high flare, where temperatures turn the noxious materials into carbon dioxide.
Initially reported by Galveston’s Daily News
, the 40-day event received little national attention and was soon overshadowed by the April 20 explosion at the company’s Deepwater Horizon site in the Gulf.
Because the company never shut down the plant, the emissions release went largely unnoticed. Any production reduction, even for as little as 24 hours, is considered important enough to be reported in the financial press, sending a notice to investors and others.
Michael Marr, a BP spokesman, said the company initially monitored emissions from the upset using a state-approved method. That method did not show releases in “excess of regulatory exposure limits to workers or the community during anytime.”
Knowing the flare process was incomplete and that at the very least trace amounts of toxic chemicals would escape into the air, Marr said BP was of the opinion the plant’s monitors, placed several feet above ground level would detect excess emissions.
Additionally, BP immediately received measurements from a separate monitor that provided readings of the flare. Only on June 4 did the company seem to grasp that emission readings were far higher than permitted by law.
According to the ProPublica report, repeated requests were made for clarification of the incident, but Marr declined to comment on how long the company analyzed flare data.
Texas City officials, informed of the enormity of the release only after it was over, have asked BP for an explanation of the upset’s occurrence. Marr stated the oil giant is reviewing its policy.
Bruce Clawson, Texas City’s coordinator for emergency management, when notified by BP of the event, said: “I’m like, ‘Oh goodness’. I had a lot of questions and they didn’t have a lot of answers at that time.”
Environmental experts have noted the vast amount of chemicals released in the event was one of the largest in Texas’ recent history.
During a study he performed from 1997 to 2007, Carmen found the BP Texas City Refinery was already releasing more benzene into the air than any other place in the US.
"I would already argue that there's too much benzene in the air in Texas City," Carman noted, "and then you add this release over 40 days, and it's just unconscionable that BP would do this."
The ProPublica report notes “the company’s corporate culture favors production and profit margins over safety and the environment. The 40-day release echoes in several notable ways the runaway spill in the Gulf. BP officials initially underestimated the problem and took steps in the days leading up to the incident to reduce costs and keep the refinery online.”
Industry experts and former employees say BP’s handling of the upset is typical of the company and plant’s operating procedures
Those experts say BP had reason to believe flare emissions would be substantial, as industry guidelines suggest at least 2 percent of toxins sent to flare are unburned, passing into the atmosphere.
The Sierra Club’s Carmen suggests flares are substantially less efficient than industry beliefs. He notes studies have shown as much as 20 percent of chemicals sent to flare are released into the atmosphere.
"A 20 percent release from the flare would equal 5 million pounds and the benzene would have been 170,000 pounds," said Carman.
In 2009, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP $87 million for failing to address safety issues that caused an explosion at the plant in 2005, killing 15 workers. Four more workers have died in accidents since then.
The April 20 explosion in the Gulf sent 11 workers to their deaths."