In the mid-afternoon of April 19, 2018, an explosion and fire at the Valero
Refinery in Texas City shook buildings at up to a mile away and sent a
plume of black smoke into the sky. Observers in the area reported that
the smoke was visible for several miles in all directions.
According to Texas City Emergency Management and management at the Valero
refinery, there was no shelter in place order issued for areas outside
the refinery although refinery workers were briefly told to shelter in
place while situation was being evaluated. The local school district reported
that school bus service at a nearby elementary school had been briefly
suspended while authorities determined if smoke from the fire posed a
danger to students and school staff.
Officials at the refinery were able to confirm that all employees had been
accounted for and that there had been no injuries caused by the explosion
and subsequent fire. The fire itself was brought under control and extinguished
by early evening. Firefighting units from the Valero facility, the nearby
Marathon refinery, and the Texas City Fire Department were reported to
have responded to the fire.
The explosion occurred in the refinery’s Unit 106, which was described
as an alkylation unit with a processing capacity of around 12,000 barrels
per day. In refineries, the alkylation process is used to transform relatively
low-octane products into high-octane products that can be added to other
fuel products to improve their octane rating. Since sulfuric acid and
hydrofluoric acid are two chemicals that are used in alkylation units,
and the fact that these chemicals are highly toxic at relatively low concentrations,
fires and explosions in alkylation units can be particularly dangerous
to refinery employees and rescue workers.
Texas City and Galveston County have seen their share of refinery accidents
and injuries over the years. In addition to the dozens, if not hundreds,
of accidents that caused only a single injury, the area has experienced
several multi-fatality/multi-injury disasters over the last half-century.
These multi-fatality/multi-injury accidents include:
- The 1947 explosion of a cargo of ammonium nitrate at a dock in the Port
of Texas City. The explosion and its aftermath killed 580 people and destroyed
much of Texas City itself.
- The 1978 explosion and fire at the Texas City Refining plant which killed
5 and left 10 workers injured.
- In 2005, an explosion at the British Petroleum Refinery killed 15 and left
another 180 injured.
- In 2016, a fire at the Marathon refinery resulted in burns to 3 employees,
1 of whom suffered severe burns.
Refinery fires and explosions are, fortunately, rare events. But when they
do occur, they have the potential to cause damage far beyond the plant.
As mentioned previously, the Valero explosion and fire occurred in a unit
that uses both sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids. These acids can produce
chemical burns on the exposed skin and cause immediate, potentially severe,
damage to lung tissue if inhaled in their gaseous states. When coupled
with the fact that much refinery chemistry is accomplished in the presence
of heavy and exotic metals such as lead and titanium, smoke from a refinery
fire can expose entire communities to very real danger.
In anticipation of such potentially disastrous conditions, refineries and
adjacent communities have developed disaster preparedness plans to deal
with such emergencies. These plans include contingencies for every type
of emergency situation and range from minimally disruptive “shelter
in place” requests to full scale mandatory evacuation orders that
could affect entire neighborhoods or towns. Such planning, although intended
to serve a greater good, has been known to lead to conflict between a
refinery’s owner and its host community.
Texas City Mayor Matt Doyle has long accused Valero and other industrial
operators of using obscure tax laws to “rob” the Texas City
ISD, and Texas City itself, of millions of dollars in tax revenue. Although
his complaints were focused on public education, you must remember that
disaster planning and emergency services do not come cheap. Thus, decreasing
the taxable value of a refinery also decreases the amount of tax money
that is available to pay for things such as police and fire services as
well as disaster planning.
Summing up, the recent explosion and fire at Valero’s Texas City
refinery points out the need for emergency planning. Who will pay for
such planning, and for the resources to support the actual implementation
of those plans when the time comes, is still being debated.