Page 29


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 docuHillcrest 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 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 highoctane 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 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, nonresidential 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 Baylessening the risks to Hillside and other nearby neighborhoodsbut 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 Christiand what he finally found after press time for this storyin “Forrest for the Trees” at . AUGUST 21, 2009 TEXASOBSERVER.ORG 19