The Texas Sierra Club on Friday disputed the findings of a CITGO-hired botanist who said that toxic gas did not escape into the neighborhoods after the May 12 refinery explosion because vegetation in the area wasn’t damaged.

Neil Carman, the Sierra Club’s clean air program director, said he found lots of brown plants.

After hearing that CITGO’s paid scientist found damaged foliage on only two plants possibly exposed to hydrofluoric acid following the CITGO explosion, Carman, of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter in Austin, said he decided to conduct his own inspection.

Carman, who lists a botany degree among his academic credits, said he can’t understand how CITGO’s hired botanist, Leonard Weinstein of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., missed what he found just blocks from the refinery.

Perhaps the best illustration, he said, is the home of Diana Bales and her husband, Russell, in the 3100 block of Buddy Lawrence Drive, three blocks from CITGO’s fence. “I’ve collected at least a dozen species here that I believe show the effects of hydrofluoric acid,” he said. “The chrome on their cars is pitted from actual droplets of (hydrofluoric acid).”

“The people here got some exposure. It’s 32 days after the explosion and we still see obvious damage by (hydrofluoric acid).”

Bales, an avid gardener, said she inspects her plants daily and notices subtle changes in them. But a casual glance was all it took to see the dead fruit and damaged greenery surrounding her home, she said.

“It’s just about killed my gardenias that were blooming,” she said pointing to a leadless twig in her yard. “It was a beautiful healthy plant. Nearly all of my plants suffered.”

Weinstein said at a Thursday news conference that plants are good indicators of hydrofluoric acid exposure because they are about 1,000 times more sensitive than humans are to the poisonous chemical.

Based on Weinstein’s findings, he tentatively concluded that there was no significant release of the gas beyond CITGO’s boundary.

CITGO’s local vice president, Al Prebula, has said Weinstein’s evidence speaks for itself.

However, Prebula also said CITGO has passed out $500 checks to about 300 refinery row residents in exchange for a legal waiver against future lawsuits.

Many people near CITGO, including the Bales family, still complain of symtpoms they blame on fallout from the explosion and fire.

“My palate was burning and I felt a heaviness in the roof of my mouth,” Bales said about the night of the blast. “Then my throat became inflamed and I felt a little nauseous. We kept listening for the siren, but no siren sounded. Then we got out the radio to see what we should do, but there was too much static to hear what they were saying.”

That’s when the family packed up the car and fled for safety.

“We were in shock,” she said. “I still can’t breath deeply because of the way my throat feels.”

Carman has criticized the way CITGO handled its latest mishap, saying the company and the residents would have been better off if a full-scale evacuation had occurred that night.

“They could have eliminated a great deal of the exposure if the people had been told to leave,” he said. “I think it’s much worse than what they’re saying.”

A message on a local emergency AM radio station instructed refinery row residents to stay inside, close their windows andmd doors and turn their air conditioners off, but CITGO officials said reception was poor. Adding to the confusion that night, the plant’s siren malfunctioned.

Meanwhile, Carman, a former Texas Air Control Board official, listened to residents’ complaints Friday and collected dozens of spotted and brown-edged leaves for testing by an independent pathologist.

“It might be too late to measure the exposure, but I think Dr. Weinstein ought to come back so he can see what I’ve found,” Carman said.

But all this testing is really a waste of time, he added. The way to avoid health risks in refinery row is to relocate its residents, he said.

“When you have this many people living this close to refineries that use hydrofluoric acid, it’s just a disaster waiting to happen,” Carman said.

Photo: Neil Carman, clean air director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter in Austin, says he has found plants he believes show the effects of hydrofluoric acid near the CITGO refinery.

Air Violations Cited at Corpus Refineries by State

Charges of environmental racism in a formal Title VI complaint to the EPA Office of Civil Rights in 1994-95 and EPA’s acceptance to investigate the charges in 1996 pressured the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to step up its mobile air monitoring efforts at seven Corpus Christi refineries. In May, the TNRCC issued violations to four refineries for excessive levels of hydrogen sulfide gas, benzene and MTBE as a result of Febuary 1997 sampling.

CITGO East /Koch Refining emitted too much H2S with the highest level ever measured in Texas neighborhoods at 2 ppm averaged over 30 minutes and benzene was found at 37.5 ppb averaged over 18.5 hours. Elevated MTBE was detected at 400 ppb averaged over 4.5 hours. Valero Refining and CITGO West were also cited for H2S violations.

The companies are protesting the violations partly due to upset conditions which they claim should ge them off the hook for exceeding state standards and safe levels.


See June 26, 1997, letter from Sierra Club’s Neil Carman to Jane Saginaw, US EPA VI Regional Administrator