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.