Unsafe Chemical Plume Found in Houston

Friday, September 8, 2017 @ 03:09 PM gHale

There is a potentially hazardous plume of a carcinogenic substance in one Houston neighborhood after a nearby oil refiner reported its operations suffered hurricane-related damage, city and federal officials said.

The Houston city and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said extra air monitors they dispatched to Houston’s Manchester region Monday detected the presence of benzene, a component of crude oil and gasoline.

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Two monitors detected significantly different levels of the carcinogen at different times of the day, and additional sampling is needed to determine the concentration, according to Loren Raun, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department, and Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, which became involved in the probe after offering the city assistance.

A Valero Energy Partners LP refinery in the neighborhood reported a hurricane-related leak on Aug. 27.

The EPA said it was deploying an air monitor to the area on Tuesday to help the investigation. Officials are seeking to pinpoint the source of the benzene plume, the concentration and how far-reaching the emissions may have spread, Raun said, after a call with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA), EDF and Houston city officials.

“EPA continues to conduct ambient air monitoring in Houston and is focusing on an area of potential concern associated with reported air emissions from a Valero facility in Houston,” said David Gray, an EPA spokesman.

A Manchester oil refinery that is a subsidiary of Valero Energy Partners said the leak on Aug. 27 resulted in the emission of benzene and other hazardous compounds, according to a copy of the refiner’s report to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ.

The report said the leak was a result of “heavy rainfall complications,” and that cleanup was under way.

Valero Energy Corp. is the majority owner of Valero Energy Partners. In an Aug. 29 statement on its website, Valero Energy Corp. said Harvey’s pounding rainfall sank the floating roof of a crude-oil tank, leading to an oil leak.

The statement said the company’s air-quality monitoring found “no detectable levels of emissions in the community.” Valero said it didn’t have an immediate update on Tuesday.

Companies must report emissions that exceed permitted amounts, a TCEQ spokesman said, adding the state “investigates all emissions events that are reported to the agency.”

Houston Health Department investigators who visited the Valero refinery Tuesday found low traces of hazardous compounds using a hand-held air monitor, which is used to identify whether compounds are present, but doesn’t identify specific compounds, Raun said. Investigators didn’t detect hazardous emissions from the damaged tank Tuesday using an infared camera. “That’s good news,” she said.

Valero’s disclosure to the TCEQ was one of 56 preliminary emissions reports citing Hurricane Harvey the state commission received from petroleum and chemical companies as of Aug. 31, according to an analysis of TCEQ filings by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Ariz.

Those Harvey-related emissions released nearly 1 million pounds of seven toxic compounds, including benzene, the group reported.

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