EPA investigating BP 'catastrophic release'

T. J. Aulds
Galveston Daily News
September 17, 2010

TEXAS CITY — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched its own investigation into a 40-day chemical release that happened in April and May at BP’s Texas City refinery, the agency’s regional director said.

BP already was under investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and faces an enforcement lawsuit by state Attorney General Greg Abbott for the release that happened April 6 through May 16 when a subunit on the refinery’s ultracracker went offline.

More than 536,000 pounds of emissions, including several tons of benzene, were released during the event, according to BP and TCEQ records.

“By joining the investigation, EPA will help ensure disclosure of all information by BP,” EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz said. “It is important the EPA, state officials and the public know what happened at the plant, and that BP is held accountable to prevent incidents like these from happening in the future.”

The EPA called the emissions event a “catastrophic release.”

“BP will cooperate with the EPA and other agencies regarding a compressor fire at its Texas City refinery on April 6 that resulted in an emissions event,” company spokesman Daren Beaudo said.

In previous statements, the company argued its air testing at the fence line and community monitors maintained by the state did not show high levels of emissions during the 40-day period.

“I hope the U.S. government leans the entire power and strength of the government and prosecutes BP to the fullest extent of the law,” attorney Anthony Buzbee said.

Buzbee filed a $10 billion federal lawsuit on behalf of about 2,500 clients against BP over the emissions incident. There also are lawsuits filed in state court on behalf of about 18,000 Galveston County residents, most of whom Buzbee represents.

In one claim, a mother alleges her infant son died as a result of exposure to chemicals released by the refinery.

Last week, BP filed a motion requesting all of the cases related to the emissions event be combined in one court.

BP estimated the emissions event included the release of 36,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides and 17,000 pounds of benzene. State law requires 10 pounds or more of benzene and 200 pounds or more of nitrogen oxide released during a 24-hour period be reported through the commission’s air emissions database.

However, neither of the emissions reached levels that required self-reporting to the EPA, BP spokesman Michael Marr said. The EPA requires any nitrogen oxides release of more than 1,000 pounds a day be reported, while the federal agency does not require reports of benzene emissions.

The refinery ultracracker’s hydrogen compressor went offline April 6 and was not repaired or restarted until May 16.

The ultracracker remained in operation at about 55 percent of its capacity, company officials said. The ultracracker can process 65,000 barrels of oil a day and mostly produces high-octane blending components for gasoline.

Benzene is a carcinogen found in oil that has been linked to some forms of cancer, according to U.S. Health and Human Services records. Nitrogen oxides react to sunlight to form ozone and can damage lung tissue and cause respiratory problems.

Because of the malfunction, the subunit was shut down, material was purged through the refinery’s fuel gas system, and excess gasses were rerouted to a flare, BP officials said.

While BP filed an initial report with the state’s environmental commission April 7, a full report detailing the extent of the emissions was not filed until June 4. Local officials were not informed of the incident until the day of the TCEQ filing.

In July, a TCEQ investigation found the release was an “excessive emissions event,” then referred it to the attorney general’s office. In August, the attorney general’s office charged BP’s Texas City refinery with violations of state air-quality laws.