The Fire This Time

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The Citgo Petroleum Corp. refinery and the Hillcrest neighborhood of Corpus Christi sit side by side, separated by a fence. Hillcrest is what environmental justice advocates call a “fenceline community”—a poor, largely minority residential area exposed to high levels of pollution from adjacent industry.

When refineries are involved, fences don’t always make for good neighbors.

On the morning of July 19, an unspecified equipment failure on the alkylation unit at the refinery released butane, hydrocarbons and hydrogen fluoride, sparking a fire that burned for two days and left one worker, Gabriel Alvarado, with severe burns and an amputated forearm.

The incident was far from the most serious at the Citgo refinery in the past decade. But it has sparked an outcry from environmental groups, safety experts, unionized refinery workers and residents of Hillcrest and other neighborhoods near the facility. They’re not buying the official story from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Citgo: that the chemical release posed no risk to the community and that the authorities’ quiet response—notifying only 15 to 20 nearby households—was adequate.

Jean Salone, a Hillcrest resident who lives two and a half blocks from the refinery, says she has talked to 60 or 70 neighbors and that many felt ill following the release. “They did have some health effects,” Salone says, “eyes running, throat burning, sore throat, nose running. Apparently there were a lot of people that got sick from it.”

More than 100 Hillcrest residents signed a letter to TCEQ criticizing the agency’s handling of the episode and requesting a public meeting. (At press time, TCEQ had not responded, but a spokesperson told the Observer that any decision would be made after an investigation is completed.) Residents say there is a pattern of problems at Citgo.

Since 1997, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited the refinery for 40 violations, two workers have died in explosions and fires, and half a dozen employees have been injured. Some neighbors blame Citgo for health problems ranging from headaches and dizziness to cancer. A 2008 Texas A&M study—hotly contested by an industry toxicologist—found benzene levels in the blood and urine of Hillcrest residents to be 280 times those of the general population.

In 2007, a Corpus Christi jury convicted Citgo of violating the Clean Air Act. The trial was a landmark—the first time a refiner had gone to trial on criminal charges. For more than 10 years, Citgo had been illegally storing oil in two roofless tanks, releasing harmful pollutants, including benzene, into the surrounding community. During the trial, a state toxicologist linked the emissions to short-term health effects including nausea, sore throats and headaches. The judge in the case hasn’t issued a sentence yet.

The July fire probably wouldn’t have attracted much attention if hydrogen fluoride hadn’t been involved. This isn’t the cavity-preventing stuff in city water. Hydrogen fluoride, or hydrofluoric acid, is a corrosive and poisonous chemical that can dissolve glass. Imagine what it can do to your lungs or skin.

About 50 oil refineries in the U.S. use HF to generate high-octane fuel. Four of those are in Corpus—more than anywhere else in the country. A trio of HF releases across the country this year, including Citgo’s, has alarmed industrial safety advocates. They argue that HF is obsolete as well as dangerous, and that safer alternatives are commercially available. A bill forcing chemical facilities to use less-risky alternatives has passed one committee in the U.S. House. Meanwhile, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency, is looking into the Corpus incident.

“Everybody in the country is interested in this,” says Fred Millar, an expert on chemical facility disasters. “It’s a near-miss disaster.”

According to a Citgo risk-management document, a worst-case disaster would look like this: On a calm day in Corpus, 150,000 pounds of HF stored at Citgo East suddenly escapes. The poisonous vapor drifts downwind through the city and endangers more than 315,000 people. People in Corpus are probably unaware of this document, as it can only be viewed under the supervision of a U.S. Marshal at a federal reading room. It can take weeks to schedule an appointment. (Despite repeated requests, the Observer was unable to view the document by press time.)

Hillcrest residents aren’t focused on that scenario now. They’re worried about already having been exposed to some level of HF in July.

Investigators with the Chemical Safety Board, the EPA, and the United Steelworkers (which is also looking into the Citgo incident), say it’s too soon to know what happened on July 19. Several sources point to a pattern of safety lapses at the facility, in particular a failure to properly maintain pipes. Kim Nibarger, a union investigator who has interviewed workers at the refinery, says operators on the alkylation unit, which processes high-octane gas constituents, saw “piping that was shaking, moving erratically” shortly before the fire.

Neil Carman of the Sierra Club sees a parallel with a fire and explosion in the same alkylation unit in 1997, which he says was caused by “a corroded pipe failure.”

“This is an ongoing problem,” says a former refinery employee who requested anonymity, “and there’s a reason that it’s an ongoing problem: because they don’t want to maintain or fix what needs to be fixed. It doesn’t happen until you force the issue or something bad happens. Now something bad has happened.”

Nobody knows how bad it was. Citgo says no hydrogen fluoride escaped the refinery fences. The TCEQ and EPA have both backed that claim. However, neither the state nor federal agency has actually seen Citgo’s findings.

State regulators have 16 fixed air monitors in the Corpus area, but none measures HF. (Same with the mobile monitors TCEQ used to take measurements during the fire.) The EPA didn’t arrive with its mobile monitors, which can detect HF, until almost 34 hours after the Citgo fire began.

According to TCEQ, a Citgo air monitor found an HF concentration of 5 parts per million several hours after the fire started. Short-term exposure at that level can cause respiratory irritation, among other health problems. The measurement was taken, reports TCEQ, “at the fenceline facing an industrial, non-residential area.”

Carman says that sounds familiar: “This is the same baloney I’ve heard from industry for years: ‘We have some pollution, but it hasn’t crossed the fenceline.’ “

Carman calls TCEQ’s reliance on Citgo’s reporting “appalling.” Suzie Canales, an environmental justice activist in Corpus, says the agency’s default position following Citgo emergencies has been to trust the company. She points to an incident in February 2008: An oil line ruptured, burning four contract workers and sending hot oil spewing across Interstate 37 and onto cars, lawns, and homes. Citgo tried to appease the community by offering free car washes, but neighbors demanded an investigation.

Initially TCEQ took the company’s side. “We were just appalled,” Canales says. “Here Citgo’s still awaiting sentencing [for its 2007 conviction]. They’re criminals. They’ve been found guilty by a jury of their peers, and TCEQ is taking their word for it.”

After Canales and others started testing on their own, TCEQ agreed to investigate, eventually finding that the oil residue did contain carcinogens. The agency slapped Citgo with an enforcement violation and invited Canales to work more closely with the regional TCEQ office.

Then, 17 months later, came the fire.

“Now, with this incident,” Canales says, “it’s like they haven’t learned anything.”

Since the fire, no representative of the EPA or TCEQ has gone into the fenceline communities to ask what people saw and experienced.

“That stuff is so powerful. They should have come out [on July 19] or the next day to see if anybody needs to go to the doctor,” says Salone. No one ever came. From the day of the fire forward, residents have received little information about what happened. A local official confirms that few people living near the refinery were told about the potential risks of the fire. Randy Page, assistant chief of the Corpus Christi Fire Department, says only 15 to 20 households within a quarter-mile of the refinery were notified. “Had this been something we were concerned with coming outside the plant into Hillcrest, we would have contacted more,” says Page, who’s also a member of the Nueces County Local Emergency Planning Committee.

Like state environmental regulators, the committee relies greatly on the advice of companies during industrial emergencies. In this case, Page says, favorable wind direction and data gathered by Citgo influenced his agency’s decision to call so few homes. By all indications, the wind was blowing away from the residential areas near Citgo on July 19, and across Nueces Bay—lessening the risks to Hillside and other nearby neighborhoods—but certainly not eliminating them.

“Both Citgo and the LEPC should have erred on the side of caution,” the Sierra Club and Corpus’ Citizens for Environmental Justice have written to TCEQ, “since the alkylation unit could have released a large vapor cloud of hydrofluoric acid and it would have been too late to evacuate areas that were not called.”

Andrea Morrow, a TCEQ spokesperson, defends the agency’s response, writing in an e-mail to the Observer: “The TCEQ currently has no data which indicate the public was exposed … nor did the TCEQ receive any citizen complaints throughout the duration of the event.”

“The unpreparedness of American communities can hardly be exaggerated,” Millar says. “And that’s because they’ve been kept in the dark about this stuff.”

Until some sunlight emerges, Salone has her own plan for a really bad accident. “I keep my keys and purse where I can grab them,” she chuckles.

Read about Forrest Wilder’s adventures trying to access Citgo’s risk-management plans for Corpus Christi—and what he finally found after press time for this story—in “Forrest for the Trees“.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.