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The Citgo refinery, July 19 THE FIRE THIS TIME A “near-miss disaster” in Corpus Christi By Forrest Wilder 1r he 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 lev els 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 responsenotifying only 15 to 20 nearby householdswas adequate. Jean Salone, a Hillcrest resident who lives two and a half blocks from the refinery, says she has talked to 6o or 7o 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 loo Hillcrest residents signed a letter to TCEQ criticizing the agency’s handling of the episode and requesting 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 21, 2009 a public meeting. \(At press time, TCEQ had not responded, but a spokesperson told the Observer that any decision would be is a pattern of problems at Citgo. Since 1997, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited the refinery for 4o 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 studyhotly contested by an industry toxicologistfound 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 landmarkthe 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 corro sive 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 highoctane fuel. Four of those are in Corpusmore 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 worstcase disaster would look like this: On a calm day in Corpus,