TEXAS CITY — Publicly, BP Texas City officials say they are confident that the main flare used during a massive emissions event in 2010 met federal standards and that the volume of emissions was not greater than the company reported to regulators, despite a 2007 study that questioned the flare’s efficiency.
However, court depositions and company emails obtained by The Daily News show BP officials were concerned and sought ways to explain away the poor test results.
In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted a test on the Ultracracker flare at BP’s Texas City refinery. That study found that the flare’s ability to burn off emissions was between 50 and 90 percent.
Federal guidelines require a flare to burn off 98 percent of the chemicals.
A reduction in efficiency means that more chemicals would have been released into the air than the company reported to state and federal regulators.
Between April 6, 2010 and May 16, 2010 BP reported that it sent more than 530,000 pounds of chemicals into the air during flaring after a compressor on the Ultracracker malfunctioned. The public was unaware of the emissions event until it was reported by The Daily News 20 days after repairs were made and flaring stopped.
Extra Testing Rejected
Internal emails and depositions show that a BP environmental specialist who consulted with Texas City refinery officials recommended extra testing of the flare.
Dave Fashimpaur testified that because of questions about the flare’s poor performance during the 2007 test, he recommended to Mark Berlinger, BP Texas City’s manager of the Health, Safety, Security and Environment Department, that officials test the flare’s efficiency again. It was similar to the recommendation the EPA made in its report on the 2007 test.
Fashimpaur said he also recommended to Berlinger that the steam-to-gas ratio of the flare be checked. Steam-assisted flares use steam to help the flare burn cleaner. Too much steam decreases a flare’s efficiency to as low as 70 percent.
Documents reviewed by The Daily News show that BP’s flares might not be operating at the recommended mix of steam to keep efficiency consistent.
Fashimpaur wrote during his depositions that BP officials rejected his recommendations.
Old Flare Tip Design
In a handout and mail out to residents in August 2010 called “BP Texas City strives to be a ‘good neighbor,’” BP boasted of its “three new high efficiency flares utilizing the best available technology to replace older systems.” The promotional piece features a photo of the Ultracracker flare. It calls the 300-foot flare the “first in a series of installations to replace older systems with newer, more efficient technology across the site.”
Fashimpaur suggested the flare was not as modern as portrayed.
In an April 6, 2009, email to BP’s Environmental Team leader, Susan Moore, Fashimpaur wrote that he thought he had found the reason the flare performed so poorly during its 2007 test.
“I have some information on the ULC (Ultracracker) flare tip design that probably contributed to the poor destruction efficiency observed during the DIAL testing when the ULC flare was at a low turndown,” Fashimpaur wrote. “The ULC flare tip is an old flare tip design. It is a perforated dish-shaped flare tip. The holes in the dish are supposed to inspirate air into the combustion zone at high flow rates; however, at low flow rates the design may allow unburnt hydrocarbons to leak out through these holes.”
Moore forwarded the email to Berlinger and other BP officials.
“FYI ... see Dave Fashimpaur’s note on ULC flare tip design,” she wrote.
Fashimpaur followed up with a similar email on April 8 asking if he should bring the topic up during meetings with regulators.
“Should I mention the theory that the old-style flare tip design on ULC flare may have caused poor destruction efficiency during the DIAL test?” he asked in the email to Moore.
BP spokesman Michael Marr said that BP officials considered Fashimpaur’s comments but decided they did not apply.
Marr emphasized earlier statements from the company that the conditions measured during the EPA test in 2007 did not match the conditions the flare was operating under during the April to May 2010 emissions event.
Shutting Down Unit The ‘Right Thing’
Despite an industry standard to limit the use of flares for emergencies or for a short term, BP officials decided to keep the unit operating while repairs were made.
It was a decision that some of BP’s top environmental employees would not have made, according to depositions that are part of a $1 billion lawsuit filed by more than 50,000 plaintiffs.
During questioning by lead plaintiff’s attorney Anthony Buzbee, Brian Funke, who is an environmental engineer for BP and a member of the refinery’s team that monitors and reports emissions, said if he had been the decision maker, the unit would have been shut down and the flares not used for 40 days.
Buzbee: And I asked (BP Texas City Air Quality Supervisor Mark Clingan), I said, “Look, if you were the decision maker and you knew that the flare you were intending to use until the 100-J (compressor) went back online, if you knew that flare was not 98 percent efficient but was well below that, would you have shut down the unit?” That’s what I asked him.
Buzbee: I’m asking you that question. Would you have shut down the unit?
Funke: If I was in the position to make that and if I knew the situation — all the situation that they would know, assuming all the information was available to me, yes.
Funke: Well, it’s the right thing to do.
Assumed Vs. Known Flare Efficiency
BP officials maintain the flare was operating at a 98 percent destruction rate.
Is his deposition, Clingan, too, said he would have recommended the unit be shut down but only if he knew the flare’s efficiency was below 98 percent. He argued that based on criteria set by the EPA, the flare was assumed to have a 98 percent destruction rate. Clingan maintained that the calculations BP used were based on regulatory assumptions.
Clingan: My job is to report regulation or report according to regulations. All I can do is go by what the regulations tell me as far as if you operate the flare according to (EPA regulation) 60.18, you’re granted 98 percent destruction.
Buzbee and Clingan continued back and forth about flare efficiency and testing.
Clingan: There’s no requirement for me to test the destruction efficiency.
Buzbee: I didn’t ask you that. I didn’t ask that. I asked you, do you know that you can test your flare and actually determine its actual efficiency, not its assumed efficiency?
Clingan: You could test it, but I’d still question whether or not it’s actual efficiency.
Buzbee: Uh-huh. You would rather make the assumption?
Clingan: I don’t rather make the assumption. I have to assume for reporting purposes.
Both Clingan and Funke testified that since the incident, BP has changed its policy. They said that, should a similar incident happen, the policy now calls for the unit to be shut down.
Galveston Daily News
July 1, 2012