Fluoride Action Network

Under The Volcano (Part I)

Source: Houston Press | February 14th, 2002 | by John Suval
Location: United States, Texas
Industry type: Oil Refineries

“By design, you know, you have these failures,” he says.

As part of its agreement with the TNRCC, Crown put in a $1.3 million scrubber to attack the problem of excess sulfur emissions. Critics railed that the company was skirting other, costlier controls. But even Abraham concedes that Crown’s sulfur dioxide emissions are way down.

“To the extent that they’re doing better, it’s to the extent that they are under a microscope,” he says.

The refinery continues to draw scrutiny from regulators. In December the Department of Justice filed a civil action against Crown, alleging numerous violations of federal clean-air and hazardous-waste statutes, including faulty storage tanks and excess emissions of nitrogen oxides. Many of the alleged infractions stem from a 1997 inspection of the refinery by the EPA.

Despite this latest knock, Bobby Phillips, a process operator at Crown and a leader of the union, says that since he returned to the refinery last February after being locked out for five years, he’s seen evidence that the company has changed.

“From my God’s honest opinion, they’re trying to make things right,” he says. “If we did anything to hurt the environment, we’re hurting ourselves. We’re the first people to get hurt.” On January 13, Crown blew up again. This time refinery officials blamed an isobutane leak.The latest wake-up call may have shattered what patience city officials had left.

“The sooner we meet with Crown the better,” says Michael Massey, the mayor’s public safety assistant.
It was the day after Thanksgiving, and Tamathia Hough and her sister were trading anxious questions about their little brother. After the terrorist attacks he’d been called to active duty by the army, and they hadn’t heard anything from him for weeks. Hough tapped out her words in brisk flourishes and waited for the replies, in this latest round of a running Internet chat they started when their phone bills began to get ridiculous. A blast rang out, and the windows of her Pasadena apartment rattled. Too strong to be a car backfiring, she thought. Probably a flare firing off at the old refinery down the road. She continued talking with her sister online.

Her son, Ricky, and a friend picked themselves up from their video game and scampered outside to see what was going on.

“Mom, Mom, the plant’s on fire! The plant’s on fire!” the redhead howled upon his return. Hough shot out the door to find her neighborhood of frame houses and hard-luck apartments converted “into a Godzilla movie,” as one homeowner would later put it. Panic-stricken people piled into their cars with none of their possessions and raced away for their lives. Some jumped on bikes and pedaled frantically toward State Highway 225. Others just ran.

Hough had a different instinct. The 34-year-old woman hightailed it toward Crown Central Petroleum to have a look. Sure enough, flames engulfed the plant, sending columns of thick black smoke into the air. She approached a group of patrol cars on Richey Street, presumably there to divert traffic away from the refinery and the Washburn Tunnel beside it. She asked the officers what chemicals were burning and if she should evacuate.

Whatever was coming out of the plant probably wouldn’t hurt her, said one. As for what to do, that was up to her.

She was back on her porch on a tense phone call with her husband when a second explosion erupted “like an atomic bomb.” It nearly knocked Hough off her feet as flames surged upward, turning the night orange and spreading a wave of heat over the area.

Her husband, a tugboat deckhand, was stuck on the water.

“He was hollering for me to get out,” Hough recalls. “How was I supposed to get out when our car was broken down and I had nowhere to go? Everybody left us.”

Meanwhile, Ricky had grown hysterical, certain the worst was still to come. The 11-year-old wanted to flee to his “secret clubhouse” on Vince Bayou.

A looming fixture on the landscape for more than 80 years, Crown has been an engine of economic growth for the Pasadena area. It also has plagued its neighbors with sporadic explosions, spills and a steady stream of pungent sulfur compounds that can make breathing a bitter chore. Many view the spewing, sputtering refinery the way others might look upon a grumbling volcano: They’re never quite sure when it’s going to blow.

The same month as the Thanksgiving explosions, the company had settled a groundbreaking clean-air suit with environmentalists and residents, an agreement that included the largest air pollution penalty ever assessed by the state. A broad coalition of fed-up people challenged the powerful industry and goaded regulators into protecting public health.

Crown was supposed to have changed. But a recent rash of mishaps has made some wonder if they can ever make this company run safely. The refinery’s dismal record raises questions about the uneasy coexistence of private homes and heavy industry, a crucial dilemma for an area that marches to the beat of free enterprise yet today struggles with some of the nation’s worst pollution, says Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg.

“The idea that it’s okay to reduce my profits and add to my cost of doing business for some liberal collective interest — that’s as far away from the old [Houston-area mentality] as you can get,” Klineberg says. “Now the business community doesn’t quite control it anymore. . .They’ve got to deal with minority communities; they’ve got to deal with neighborhoods. Other people are at the table.”

At a safer distance from the unfolding chaos on November 23, public safety officials also felt a sense of helpless frustration. They had fielded calls from alarmed residents but had heard nothing from Crown. That silence made it impossible to determine what emergency protocols to employ. Should they sound sirens? Post messages on radio and television? What would they say? Some 20 minutes passed before the company reported that it had blown up.”That’s a long time for people in a state of panic not knowing what to do,” says Michael Massey, assistant for public safety to Pasadena Mayor John Manlove.

Massey, by his own admission, was unaware that Crown sits on city property and not in a deannexed industrial zone like other companies. Knowing this would in theory have given the fire department and other city personnel more options to respond, Massey says, but the reality is that Crown, like other refineries, has its own emergency response teams, and the city provides backup only as needed.

Jack Jones, the plant’s environmental manager, finally called from his home at 8:20 p.m. to alert officials that a liquefied petroleum gas unit had exploded. Beyond that, he had “very little information,” a Harris County Pollution Control notification record says.

Tamathia Hough and son Ricky endured another half-hour of waiting before a friend arrived and took them to Houston for the night. Crown would have one more explosion before the volatile fuel feeding the blaze was spent around 3 a.m. One person, a Crown emergency worker, received minor burns, according to company officials.

Randy Trembly, the Crown executive vice president who heads the refinery, says that the irony of the event is that it happened during a maintenance procedure intended to minimize emissions. Just that day Crown had notified the county that it was looking for the cause of a smoking flare. The expected impact of that upkeep, according to the report, was “none.”

“It’s so heartbreaking,” Trembly says. “We were trying to be environmentally proactive.”

It would be several weeks before an investigation would disclose the blunders that caused Crown’s latest disaster.

Crown Oil & Refining Company opened shop along the Houston Ship Channel at a time when oil was fast becoming the region’s defining industry. The year was 1920, and Pasadena was a farming community dominated by a handful of founding families. The new plant sat amid the vast fields of strawberries that had been the community’s lifeblood up till then.The company played a dominant role in the community from the beginning. Crown officials formed a crucial voting bloc during Pasadena’s successful bid to incorporate in 1928.

During the Great Depression, Crown and six other companies, including Phillips Petroleum, virtually kept the school district afloat. By attracting workers to the area, these businesses spawned population growth and created real estate markets.

“We appreciated and welcomed all the development, and of course it helped all of Houston,” says 79-year-old Clyde Pomeroy, a retired oilman whose family came to Pasadena in the early 1900s and prospered drilling water wells. As a young man, Pomeroy worked at Crown, manufacturing high-octane fuel for World War II aircraft.

Today Crown is an image of boilers, reactors, towers and tall, steaming stacks along a dreary stretch of Red Bluff Road. The facility covers 174 acres amid some of the most heavily industrialized real estate in the world.

Refining crude into fuels like gas, diesel and heating oil is a messy undertaking, even if Crown’s production capacity — approximately 100,000 barrels a day — is modest compared to giants like Exxon Mobil’s Baytown complex, with its half-million-barrel output. Crude contains a variety of sulfuric materials that must be removed. How to deal with the reeking, unhealthy by-products has long been a vexing question for the industry.

Some 18 toxic substances are used or generated in Crown’s round-the-clock refining processes, including hydrogen fluoride, a chemical corrosive enough to dissolve glass. Tons of emissions, some damaging to health in high enough quantities, get released into the air.

Long before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, a Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission or a Harris County Pollution Control, there was the conscience of a refinery’s operators to decide how much of what got dumped when and where. Such choices pitted the interest in keeping the peace with the neighbors against the imperatives of a company’s bottom line.

Bob Cunningham, senior vice president of Dallas-based energy consultants Turner, Mason & Co., was the engineer in charge of a Mississippi refinery in the 1960s. He says his crews used to drop fish into the canals flowing from the plant to make sure they could survive. If the fish went belly up, they knew something was “awry” and made adjustments to their operations.

“We were committed to being a good corporate citizen and having the plant be an asset to the community,” says the 66-year-old Rice graduate.

Longtime Pasadena dwellers like Pomeroy recall plenty of fierce smells from the paper mills and petrochemical plants. But that was the price of development, he says, even if it ultimately cost the Houston area the quality of its air.

“There was never any resentment,” he says. “We never complained.”

Like a generation of smokers that blithely puffed away before learning the downside of the habit, people in high-pollution areas gradually came to learn that inhaling sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other industrial emissions on a regular basis wasn’t all that healthy. The change in attitude was not sudden, says Cunningham, but rather evolved out of the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the landmark clean air and water legislation was passed, and agencies like the EPA came into being.

As regulations evolved, plants found themselves being scrutinized in ways that were unimaginable in the freewheeling days of yore. There were inspections and tedious reports. Companies had to maintain mountains of monitoring data. Sometimes they were forced to produce cleaner fuels and to invest in efficient technology. An ornery old-timer like Crown flailed like a captive crocodile under the regimen. More often than not, it found ways to slip through holes in the regulatory net.

“Recurring emissions and recurring plant malfunctions clearly indicate the need for adequate backup equipment, better training and a corporate commitment that apparently does not exist,” wrote Harris County Pollution Control manager Darhl Ferraro in 1999. “We know of no other refinery with such an egregious history of problems as Crown.”Amid the construction companies, shuttered storefronts, gun center and other colorless buildings in old Pasadena stands the brick courthouse annex that is home to Harris County Pollution Control. The location here in the provinces gives the agency’s 50-member staff a leg up in responding to complaints about the Ship Channel industries. Investigators need only step out onto their rooftop and peer northward, past Little Vince Bayou, a railroad spur and a thicket of power lines to find Crown Central Petroleum, about a half-mile away. Since 1990, pollution control has issued 45 violation notices to Crown for a variety of infractions, from nuisance odors to coke and oil spills in nearby waterways. Only once, however, did it refer a case to the county or district attorney. And that case — a predawn blizzard of alumina silica catalyst that covered downwind yards, homes and vehicles with 20 tons of the sandlike material — was too dramatic to let pass. (The office of then-D.A. Johnny Holmes deemed it a weak criminal case and did not pursue litigation, says Jennifer Wheeler, pollution control’s enforcement coordinator.)

Rather than come down too hard on polluters, the agency prefers to let companies take corrective action on their own, says director Rob Barrett.

“One of the things we try to do here is not get crosswise with companies,” Barrett says. “We try to keep good relations. . .to maximize what good we can do.”

Pollution control is the first tier of a regulatory system that includes the TNRCC and, to a lesser extent, the EPA, which tends to delegate enforcement of federal laws to the states. A shortage of inspectors, combined with the reluctance of politicians to give the agencies any real bite, has made the Houston area a haven for polluters, says Neil Carman, the clean air director for the Sierra Club in Texas.

“The agencies don’t have enough manpower,” Carman says. “But you can’t totally blame the agencies.”

For years, regulators and Crown have been locked in a cat-and-mouse game rigged in industry’s favor. Texas allows facilities to exceed pollution limits if an emission is deemed unplanned and not preventable — an “upset,” in bureaucratic parlance. While the term is meant to apply to events such as explosions, tank ruptures and other unforeseen disruptions, Crown has blamed tons of excess emissions on purportedly unavoidable breakdowns in operations.

“Of course you’re going to say it’s an upset. Why? Because you don’t have to meet any emissions limit,” says Paul Newman, an environmental coordinator with pollution control.