By Harvey Rice
Houston Chronicle staff writer
GALVESTON – With the world focused on a BP rig explosion in the spring of 2010 that caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history, a massive release of pollutants from the company’s Texas City refinery went largely unnoticed.
The April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico came two weeks after the BP refinery began releasing pollutants into the air through a 300-foot flare that is designed to burn them away. BP reported at least 538,000 pounds of gases, including 17,371 pounds of cancer-causing benzene, spewed from the flare over 40 days.
It was the third-largest release of benzene in Texas from 2009-11, according to a report released last week by the advocacy group Environmental Integrity Project.
“Even if you accept on the surface what BP claims what the release was, it was a major release,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of the environmental group Air Alliance Houston.
More than two years later, internal BP emails and statements in depositions for a $500 billion lawsuit indicate BP ignored repeated requests for money to fix a compressor that failed, causing the chemical release.
The emails also show that BP officials knew as early as 2007 that the flare may have been capable of consuming significantly less than the 98 percent (standard) of the pollutants the company says it burned. This suggests the extent of the release may have been far greater than estimated.
The public became aware of the release only after it ended May 16, 2010. Regulations required BP to give notice to state officials within 24 hours of the start of the gas release and within two weeks of its conclusion, but notice to the public was not required.
“We usually get warned – a phone call from Texas City or the sirens go off,” said Mary Brooks, 57, diagnosed with chemically induced asthma after the 2010 release. “We never heard a siren. There were no phone calls.”
Brooks is one of 48,380 Texas City and La Marque residents suing BP for illnesses they blame on the release.
Pollutant level elevated
BP declined a request for an interview. In a written statement, the company said the flare operated at 98 percent efficiency during the release and that neither monitors in the community nor those at the plant fence line showed elevated levels of pollutants in April and May 2010.
Tejada said the monitors have repeatedly failed to register major gas releases from the plant.
A compressor broke down at BP’s ultracracker unit at the Texas City refinery on April 6, 2010. That forced the refinery to vent gases, most of them through a flare.
The company could have shut down operations to keep the gases from venting, but management decided to keep operating at a lower capacity while the compressor was repaired, according to the depositions. Based on testimony by several BP officials, the company earned between $6.7 million and $13 million by continuing to operate.
Although BP said excess gases were flared for 40 days ending on May 16, 2010, a company email dated May 22 states that the compressor resumed operating that day. BP declined to explain the email, but it suggests the gases may have flared for six days longer than reported.
Once the release became public knowledge, attorneys began offering their services and meeting with residents about potential health effects. Before the statute of limitations closed the door to lawsuits last month, 48,380 residents living near the BP refinery had joined in suits, said Tony Buzbee, the liaison attorney for Galveston County district court.
Buzbee, who has about 25,800 clients, is asking for more than $500 billion in damages. BP in December settled for $50 million a lawsuit by the Texas attorney general alleging poor operation and maintenance led to the release. The company admitted no liability.
Tiny drop, big increase
The depositions in the ongoing cases show that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality tested the flare in 2007. The EPA report showed that the flare operated at 50 to 90 percent efficiency. The Texas report said the flare operated at 38 to 79 percent efficiency.
Every 1 percent drop in efficiency means an increase of as much as 100 percent in chemicals released, said Sparsh Khandeshi, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project At 90 percent efficiency, the flare could have spewed between 400 and 800 percent more gases into the air than reported.
The EPA reported that the actual emissions from the ultracracker flare during the 2007 test were six times greater than the amount reported by BP.
Emails among company officials in 2009 indicate concern about the flare.
BP Environmental Specialist Dave Fashimpaur wrote in an April 8, 2009, email that the flare tip was built from an old design, contributing to its poor efficiency.
BP claimed a test in April/May 2010 showed normal operations.
The EPA and Texas reports, however, show that the ultracracker flare and a temporary flare were tested simultaneously. Both reports said the temporary flare was highly efficient but the ultracracker flare performed poorly.
In depositions, officials said no steps were taken to improve the efficiency of the ultracracker flare between 2007 and April 2010.
Officials in charge of the compressor that failed, causing the release, were repeatedly rebuffed when they sought money for repairs and improvements, documents show.
As BP struggled to repair the compressor, a BP official sent an email on April 16, 2010: “I wish the project people who fought us and justified overruling us were still here today to feel our pain. But instead they have moved on to more wonderful and greater things. I sure hope they get good bonuses for (expletive) us over.”
Another BP employee replied, “It just reminds me of a saying: ‘The bitterness of poor quality will be remembered long after the joy of a low price is forgotten.’?”