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While refinery burns, TCEQ official enjoys Harry Potter movie

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On the morning of July 19th, a fire broke out in the alkylation unit of Citgo’s Corpus Christi refinery, severely burning one worker and leading to a major release of hydrofluoric acid, one of the most dangerous chemicals in the American refining industry.

Hours later, the top regional official for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was walking into a movie theater to spend two hours with Harry Potter.

In August, I published a long-ish story in the Observer about the Citgo refinery fire.

In the piece, I looked at TCEQ’s failure to test for hydrofluoric acid in the neighborhoods surrounding the Citgo refinery.

After the story ran, I received a large box of emails and other documents I had requested through open records laws.

I haven’t had time to go through the thousands of pages of TCEQ records but some of the emails from the early hours of the July 19th fire are very telling about the agency’s disaster response.

As I wrote in a short piece for this issue of the Observer:

E-mails reveal that hours after the fire started, Susan Clewis, the Region 14 TCEQ head, still had little idea what was transpiring. In one e-mail, almost three hours after the incident began, Clewis wrote that she was “walking into the Harry Potter movie.”

“Apparently there is a fire at Citgo,” Clewis wrote in that same e-mail to Donna Phillips, the area head for the Texas Coast and East Texas. The e-mail states that an agency employee had called Larry Elizondo, a Citgo spokesman and Corpus city councilman, but “he refused to give [the employee] any information.”

“We think the fire is out but not sure,” Clewis wrote. In fact, the fire, which burned for three days, was visible from miles away. By the time Clewis was writing, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times had already posted a story about the incident.

Susan Clewis email II(Click for a larger image)

Who’s in control here? The state environmental agency charged with protecting people and the environment or a refiner that’s a convicted corporate criminal? Note that Citgo refused to give TCEQ any information on what was transpiring. And shockingly, the Citgo spokesman mentioned in the email, Larry Elizondo, is also a Corpus Christi city councilman. I hope he doesn’t treat his constituents that way.

Clewis assumes, for no apparent reason, that the fire was out… and walks into the movie theater to enjoy two hours of Harry Potter learning new spells to battle Voldemort.

Later in the day, the TCEQ officials decide that maybe it’s a good idea to monitor the fence-line neighborhoods for toxic emissions. After all the media is watching.

“With the media attention this event is getting, I think it would be best to conduct air monitoring,” Kelly Ruble, a Region 14 employee, wrote to Clewis and Phillips at 3:41 p.m., nearly seven hours after the fire started. “The old saying ‘negative data is better than no data.'”

Susan Clewis email(Click for a larger image)

Nice of them but their air monitoring was mostly pointless.

TCEQ didn’t test for HF or many other key pollutants that could have escaped the refinery. Neither TCEQ’s 16 Corpus-area air monitors nor its mobile monitoring equipment is capable of measuring for HF.

“At the time of this email, the investigator had been to a couple of the target neighborhoods and had not measured any VOCs or H2S [volatile organic chemicals or hydrogen sulfide] at those locations,” Phillips wrote on the evening of July 19.

It’s no surprise that TCEQ didn’t find hydrogen sulfide, says Neil Carman, a former state environmental regulator, who’s now an air pollution expert with the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. H2S isn’t even present in the process unit where the fire and chemical release occurred, according to Carman. (TCEQ did not respond to requests for comment.)

As usual, TCEQ didn’t respond to a request for comment until after my deadline had passed. You can read their response below the fold.

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.