DINA CAPPIELLO, PEGGY O’HARE and THAYER EVANS, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, JULY 29, 2006
TEXAS CITY – Federal investigators expect to be on the scene by midday today to begin a probe into Thursday’s explosion at BP’s Texas City plant, the second such incident this year.
Smoke and flames again erupted there early Thursday evening, shaking windows and testing nerves still raw from an explosion four months ago that ranked as one of the deadliest refinery accidents in U.S. history.
No injuries were reported in Thursday’s blast, which occurred about 6 p.m. in a part of the sprawling 1,200-acre complex far removed from the unit that exploded in March. BP spokesman Neil Geary said there was no connection between the two incidents.
“It’s nowhere near as bad as the one a few months ago,” said lifelong Texas City resident Mike Martin, who stepped outside of his house to see smoke.
The company would not speculate about the cause of the explosion Thursday night.
The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board is sending a two-man team to study the damage. Investigators Giby Joseph and Francisco Altamirano, will meet with plant officials to get more details about the accident..
All fires stemming from the explosion Thursday evening at BP’s Texas City plant were extinguished early this morning, and all employees are accounted for, officials said today.
Air monitoring in the area continues, but authorities said this morning no harmful substances have been detected as a result of the explosion, and a precautionary “shelter in place” request issued after the blast Thursday was lifted overnight.
Gloria Randle, who lives near 6th Avenue North and 9th Street South, said she was cleaning her fingernails and waiting for Wheel of Fortune to come on television when she heard the blast, which some residents said sounded like thunder.
“All of a sudden, I heard a boom. A real big boom,” said Randle, a Texas City native who estimates she lives less than a mile from the BP plant. “I thought al-Qaida was here. I did, I’m not going to lie.”
Her son Nathan Randle, who was working about five blocks away from the plant, said, “I was like, here it goes again.”
Nearly two hours after the blast, the wind shifted, prompting BP and Texas City officials to recommend that residents living nearby remain indoors, close all windows and turn off air-conditioning units. That recommendation was lifted earlier this morning.
Although monitoring conducted by the company and the city’s hazardous materials team detected no pollution past the company’s fences, the company said there was a risk of hydrogen sulfide gas in the smoke and haze.
The gas, which smells of rotten eggs, can cause headaches, fatigue and eye irritation when people are exposed at low doses, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Don Thompson, regional director for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said that from what he saw on television, pollution did not appear to be a problem.
“You have white steam,” he said. “White steam means it’s clean.”Despite the assurances, Ruby Luna, who lives less than a quarter mile from the facility, said she experienced symptoms from some kind of chemical.
“We’ve started getting real strong headaches, because of the smell,” she said. “It’s bad. It’s gassy, and there are a lot of chemicals.”
BP emergency response crews, assisted by the Texas City Fire Department, Chocolate Bayou Emergency Response Team and personnel from the nearby Valero and Marathon plants, said they had the fire contained to the unit and under control an hour after the blast. But it was still burning at 11 p.m., and BP officials said they expected the blaze to be snuffed by midnight.
Earlier in the night, Texas City Fire Chief Gerald Grimm said pipes containing fuel were rupturing and feeding the fire.
“We now believe we have additional fuel being provided to the fire,” Grimm said.
BP reported that all of the plant’s estimated 1800 workers had been accounted for.
“Whenever you have something happen at one of your facilities, you don’t want to see it happen. It’s something you feel bad about,” said Hugh Depland, a BP spokesman.
The latest incident comes as BP faces scrutiny for its environmental and safety record. The company leads the nation in refinery deaths during the last 10 years, with 22 since 1995. In 2003 and 2004, its Texas City refinery — built in 1934 and the third largest in the U.S.— had more than 100 accidental releases of air pollution, the most of any facility in the Houston area.
The company’s internal investigation into the March explosion, which killed 15 people and injured about 170, found that workers had made “surprising and deeply disturbing” mistakes during the startup of an octane-enhancing unit and that on numerous occasions the company failed to replace an antiquated piece of equipment that vented emissions into the atmosphere.
BP is still facing litigation brought by injured workers and families of the dead, which could cost the company as much as $700 million .
Ed Hartman, 66, who has lived in Texas City for 40 years, said he’d like to see the company improve its performance.
“There’s something going on out there that they can’t put their finger on,” he said.
Lucy Sullivan, who lives about two miles from BP’s complex, said, “If you live in the area, you just sort of take it in stride. … If there’s not a big flame, you just go about your business.” She said she felt her dining room floor shake.
When fully operational, the Texas City plant processes 3 percent of the nation’s crude oil supply. Each day its towers, tanks and pipes convert 460,000 barrels of oil.
The explosion occurred along a hydrogen line in a part of the refinery called the Resid Hydrotreating Unit, which removes sulfur from heavy crude oil.
The unit — one of 30 at the 1,200 acre site — was completed in 1984, after the refinery’s previous owner, Amoco, conducted years of study into how to get the most oil out of a barrel. It processes 60,000 barrels of oil per day and allows BP to convert 75 percent of a barrel of oil into useful products, according to a 1992 article in the Chicago Tribune.
It’s also responsible for a fair share of the company’s profits. In 1991, according to the Tribune report, the Texas City refinery made $75 million with high sulfur crude, out of a company total of $1.4 billion in profits.
Earlier this year, the unit was shut down for 12 days of maintenance.
And according to a press release, PROGNOST Systems Inc. was recently hired by BP to install a system in the hydrotreating unit that would “provide early warning of mechanical problems or changes in performance.”
It was unclear if these upgrades had any role in the explosion.
Chronicle reporters S.K. Bardwell, Tom Fowler, Bill Hensel, Anne Marie Kilday and Zeke Minaya contributed to this report.