Fluoride Action Network

Corpus Christi: Sierra Club requests criminal investigation of CITGO Refining’s May 12th accident

Source: Letter to US EPA Region VI from Sierra Club | Clean Air Program Director, Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, Austin, Texas
Posted on June 26th, 1997
Location: United States, Texas
Industry type: Oil Refineries



P. O. Box 1931
Austin, TX 78767

June 26, 1997

The Honorable Jane Saginaw
Regional Administrator, Region VI
United States Environmental Protection Agency
1445 Ross Avenue, Suite 1200
Dallas, Texas 75202-2733 Fax 214-665-6648

Re: Criminal investigation requested of CITGO Refining’s May 12th accident at Corpus Christi, Texas due to toxic hydrofluoric acid exposure suffered by ~2,000 to ~3,000 poor minority residents of Refinery Row neighborhoods

Dear Regional Administrator Saginaw:

In association with members of People Against Contaminated Environments in Corpus Christi, the Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club and its Coastal Bend regional group, and the National Oil Refinery Action Network request the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to begin an immediate criminal investigation of CITGO Refining’s May 12, 1997 accident at its East Plant in Corpus Christi that resulted in significant hydrofluoric acid (HF) exposure to the disproportionately populated poor people of color neighborhoods of north east Corpus Christi in its Refinery Row district. Several thousand residents are known to be adversely affected by the CITGO accident. A principal reason to call for USEPA’s direct investigative assistance is the egregious environmental racism that has been routinely practiced against the Refinery Row residents by industry, by the City of Corpus Christi and the state of Texas.

Facts surrounding CITGO Refining’s accident at its East Plant Alkylation unit

A summary of facts in the CITGO matter is listed but is not comprehensive and yet points to a combination of human error and mechanical failure in the accident.

• CITGO had a serious accident on the night of May 12, 1997 in an alkylation unit,
and involved a toxic, hazardous chemical release along with fires and explosions.
• CITGO has indicated that a pipe in the alkylation unit leaked hydrofluoric acid, propane and butane that sparked one or more explosions and fires.
• Minutes before the May 12th accident, CITGO was observing operating problems in the alkylation unit but failed to shut it down before an explosion transpired.
• CITGO contractors observed a cloud of chemical vapors from the area of the alkylation unit within an 11 minute period immediately prior to the explosion.
• CITGO knew that maintenance was needed on a corrosion damaged steel pipe feeding the alkylation unit that finally leaked hydrofluoric acid, propane and butane and the escaping volatile gases contacted a spark that resulted in an explosion.
• CITGO uses dangerous hydrofluoric acid as a major catalyst in the same alkylation unit, and the refinery had two earlier HF leaks on May 25 and September 20, 1996.
• CITGO failed to warn the public and urge an evacuation of the heavily populated neighborhoods in order to minimize toxic chemical exposure to the residents in adjacent neighborhoods of Buddy Lawrence Drive, Oakpark, and Hillcrest, and west to Navigation Boulevard, which all nestle along IH-37 near CITGO.
• CITGO failed to inform the mostly poor people of color residents for seven days after May 12th that it had released toxic chemicals into the atmosphere of Corpus Christi and failed to encourage residents who were exposed to HF to consult with a physician.
• Based upon conservative estimates, at least 2,000 to 3,000 Refinery Row residents suffered—due to CITGO’s HF accident—eye irritation, skin burning, throat burning, respiratory irritation & shortness of breath, throat soreness, chest pain, cough, nausea, dizziness, and rash that are consistent with hydrofluoric acid exposure. Nearly 1,000 Texas City, Texas residents experienced such symptoms in 1987 due to a major HF accident at a nearby refinery.
• Refinery Row residents observed—right after May 12—hundreds of damaged ornamental and garden plants and trees in their yards that appears consistent with hydrofluoric acid exposure.
• Refinery Row residents observed—right after May 12—many injured and/or dead pets that is consistent with hydrofluoric acid exposure.
• Refinery Row residents observed—on the evening of May 12—dead birds falling from the sky around the CITGO East Plant refinery during the accident.
• Refinery Row residents observed—right after May 12—new corrosion to vehicles and other private property which is consistent with hydrofluoric acid exposure.
• I have myself personally observed vegetation and corrosion damage characteristic of hydrofluoric acid exposure within a few blocks of CITGO’s alkylation unit. More than a dozen species and several dozen trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants displayed symptoms of chemical injury and chlorosis which are consistent with hydrofluoric acid exposure. Several species are known to be HF sensitive such as pine trees, gardenias, and peach trees.
• CITGO has persistently denied that sufficient toxic chemical emissions such as HF left its fence line to be capable of injuring residents, vegetation, property or wildlife.
• CITGO failed to warn citizens and children about picking up and handling shreds of CITGO’s exploded metal that were blown into neighborhoods, and hydrofluoric acid contamination may have been present on numerous metal bits and pieces thereby increasing the HF exposure to residents and children.
• CITGO failed to warn residents about not eating home grown fruits and vegetables from their gardens since they may be contaminated with HF; residents have reported what appear to be HF-chemically injured fruits and vegetables right after May 12th.
• CITGO has admitted that the May 12th accident involved a major release of hydrofluoric acid, hydrocarbons and smoke.
• CITGO claimed that the fire at the alkylation unit burned up the hydrofluoric acid which is inconsistent with the thousands of reports of human exposure, vegetation damage, and corrosion in the Refinery Row neighborhoods in closest proximity to the site of CITGO’s accident.

More facts may emerge as CITGO reveals additional information to the public and potentially through other avenues to access the truthful picture of the accident.
Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission grossly inadequate investigation
A primary reason for requesting that the USEPA investigate the CITGO accident is, in part, also due to what the Refinery Row community perceives as the usual poor response by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) and its Corpus Christi regional field office. The TNRCC, according to Refinery Row residents, is an utter and total failure in carrying out its mission to protect public health, and is clearly more interested in protecting industry from the public.
Here is a brief summary of several concerns expressed by residents living near CITGO about the May 12th accident.
• TNRCC failed to properly and comprehensively investigate the CITGO accident by not working with the thousands of affected Refinery Row residents, primarily because the TNRCC knows that these residents are mostly poor people of color who have too little political and economic clout compared to the powerful oil companies and because the TNRCC practices environmental racism on behalf of industry.
• TNRCC’s Corpus Christi office failed to send its Air Program investigators until 14 hours after the CITGO accident (on the morning of May 13th); a TNRCC Water Program inspector was sent out on May 12th but who has no authority to recommend air pollution violations.
• TNRCC improperly handled Refinery Row citizen complaints related to the CITGO incident of May 12th. Residents claim the agency refused to accept and investigate their complaints about CITGO in spite of the fact that TNRCC receives more than $80 million a year from EPA for public health and environmental protection purposes.
• TNRCC’s response has been fairly typical to previous responses of other incidents of outrageous pollution bombarding Refinery Row neighborhoods for which the TNRCC does too little to address and correct via violations, enforcement action, technical reviews and stricter permitting.
• TNRCC made basically no investigative effort to conduct sampling of off-site
1) vegetation damage, 2) vehicle and property damage, or 3) CITGO metallic shreds on Refinery Row for evidence of HF exposure and reaction byproducts to assess if violations of the Texas Clean Air Act (TCAA) occurred.
• TNRCC has improperly allowed CITGO to escape TCAA violations by using the upset general rule (TNRCC General Rule 101.6) but which specifically prohibits a nuisance condition of air pollution as defined in the Texas Health & Safety Code (see §382.085 (a) & (b) ) and by the agency’s rules (TNRCC General Rule 101.4); this is especially an egregious failure since ~2,000 to ~3,000 people were injured.
• TNRCC apparently denies that TCAA air pollution violations occurred on May 12th in association with CITGO’s accident and evidently refuses to cite CITGO for such gross violations, despite adverse health effects, vegetation damage and corrosion.
• TNRCC has failed to conduct a criminal investigation as of June 25, 1997 although the Texas Clean Air Act certainly authorizes the agency to use its powers where negligence and criminal activities warrant such an investigation.
• TNRCC failed to conduct ambient air monitoring for hydrofluoric acid and byproducts of incomplete combustion (including HF reaction byproducts) during CITGO’s HF accident.
• TNRCC does not maintain any HF monitors in the Refinery Row area in a community possessing the single largest concentration of HF-using refineries in the United States.

Hydrofluoric acid: Highly Toxic Catalyst used by Eight Corpus Christi Refineries is the most concentrated refinery use among refining communities in the USA

Further reasons for a criminal investigation is the extraordinarily high volume and concentration of HF in Corpus Christi along the ship channel in exceptionally close proximity to tens of thousands of poor Corpus Christi residents. The large quantity of HF is basically a disaster waiting to happen unless refineries switch to safer alternatives, relocate thousands of residents further away and operate more safely.

All eight Corpus Christi refineries use hydrofluoric acid in their alkylation units, making the Refinery Row neighborhoods an exceedingly dangerous place to live by sitting next to the largest concentration of HF-using refineries in the United States. These refineries are as follows:

1 – 2. Coastal East and West Refineries (which may have shared HF storage);
3. Coastal Quintana Refinery;
4. – 5. CITGO East and West Refineries (which may have shared HF storage);
6. – 7. Koch East and West Refineries (which may have shared HF storage);
8. Valero Refinery (major HF user in producing reformulated gasoline).

• Each refinery has HF storage and alkylation use that is reportedly between 100,000 pounds and one million pounds at any one time.

• Total HF use and storage in Corpus Christi is between 500,000 pounds and 8.0 million pounds.

• HF storage probably involves numerous railcars that transport in the liquid and fully loaded railcars are allowed to sit along railyards while containing liquid HF.

Hydrofluoric Acid: Highly Toxic Catalyst used in Corpus Christi Refineries is why a urgent need exists to address safety plans for a mass evacuation of Refinery Row

The most deadly chemical in use at eight Corpus Christi refineries is an alkylation catalyst, hydrogen fluoride (HF). HF is used at Koch East and West, CITGO East and West, Coastal East and West, Valero, and Coastal-Quintana refineries.

Since it is in widespread use near highly populated residential areas, efforts need to be made to address public safety concerns if and when a mass evacuation is necessary. Without a doubt, HF poses many hazards which Dr. Fred Millar tried to alert city officials about what a toxic vapor cloud of HF could do to Corpus Christi residents several years ago, but his warnings have largely gone unheeded by City and state officials as well as industry. 1

As a result of HF dangers in Corpus Christi known for HF hazards described below,2 in April 1991 Dr. Fred Millar held a series of meetings with principal Corpus Christi officials including the late Mayor regarding known problems with this hazardous substance. Corpus Christi officials were encouraged to discuss this information and potential concerns with the public, but as of November 1994, no official attempt has been made to communicate the hazardous concerns of HF to the persons living in the residential neighborhoods near the refineries. Officials did work to activate a dormant Local Emergency Planning Commission to meet to begin planning response for emergencies like an HF release, but no effort or program was initiated to inform the industrial district neighborhoods of the exceptional hazards posed by an HF release or accident. The public was not informed by leaders and major news media.

Eight Corpus Christi refineries—the most of any site or US city—have continued HF use in their refining processes. The TNRCC requires permit applicants to submit information on chemicals like HF as part of a disaster review process in order to help prevent catastrophic releases, but at the same time it is obviously impossible to prevent all chemical accidents. The TNRCC needs to study requiring refineries to change alkylation catalyst to end the use of substances like HF in favor of solid acid catalyst, but no state regulatory effort has been conducted toward ending HF use. …

Read Neil Carman’s full letter to Jane Saginaw, Regional Administrator of US EPA Region VI