Shelter-In-Place in Texas City. What happens when a refinery or plant loses power?
In an emergency, where hazardous materials may have been released into the atmosphere, authorities may issue a shelter-in-place. This means that residents are asked to go indoors, into a small interior room of their home, with few or no windows, and remain there until the advisory is lifted. (Go HERE for specific shelter-in-place instructions.)
A shelter-in-place was issued in Texas City in the wee hours of Tuesday morning because four refineries and chemical plants lost power Monday evening and early Tuesday morning. School has also been cancelled.
When a refinery loses power, the sky lights ups with the flares used to burn off hydrocarbons that would normally be processed if the power was on and the refinery was working normally. The flares prevent potentially deadly explosions. But when the flares are burning, the heavy black smoke that they spew pollutes the air significantly enough to warrant advisories for nearby residents to stay indoors and turn off the air conditioning.
According to Houston’s Channel 2 news, the first refinery, BP Texas City, the 3rd largest refinery in the nation, was the first refinery to lose power. The BP refinery had been plagued recently with electrical power problems leading up to this outage.
And plagued is a good description of BP’s history in Texas City. After the 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 180, BP had to pay $50.6 million to settle OSHA safety violations. Then in April and May of last year, because of a 40-day chemical release, BP was hit with a $10 billion federal class action lawsuit. BP’s adjoining chemical plant lost power, too.
The other refineries and plants that lost power were: Dow, Valero and Marathon.
So what are the short and long-term effects of such a power loss by a whole haggle of refineries and plants? What does it mean to the local air quality and the-not-so local? This science website says this about hydrocarbons in the air:
Hydrocarbons in air by themselves alone cause no harmful effects. However, they undergo chemical reactions in the presence of sunlight and nitrogen oxides. They form photochemical oxidants leading to photochemical smog. This causes irritation in the eyes and lungs leading to respiratory diseases.
There are numerous misunderstandings about the purpose of flares. Also numerous are the prejudices concerning the environmental damage flares supposedly cause…In order to have a clean and complete combustion, the hydrocarbons have to be sufficiently mixed with oxygen and adding steam does this. A well-functioning flare can be recognised by the clear flame and the absence of a black plume of smoke.
The BP website goes on to say that when power is not available or intermttant, there is no steam and thus combustion is incomplete and a black plume is produced, possibly with soot formation and the emission of un-combusted hydrocarbons.So when a refinery has electrical power, BP claims, the flares burn clean. But when it doesn't, flares pollute.
According to Channel 2, the Mainland Medical Center in Texas City area has reported 13 emergency room patrons complaining of respiratory problems. One woman interviewed in front of her home, which is 2 miles from the BP refinery plant, said, “My lungs are burning. It smells awful.”
These flare incidents matter because they contribute to Houston’s already dismal air quality. Houston’s ship channel is home to the largest petrochemilcal complex in the nation. Houston rivals Los Angeles as the nation’s smoggiest city. L.A. has its cars as its leading culprit and we have our refineries and plants. CleanHouston.org says we lead the nation with the most severe ozone problem. Houston’s ozone concentration during the summer is often two to three times higher than the government standard.
CleanHouston.org also mentions the American Lung Association’s scary stat that running or jogging in a heavily polluted city, like Houston, is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day! Couple this with the fact that Texas also leads the country in air emissions of mercury. Mercury is on the top of the most dangerous list. It is a potent neurotoxin that can harm fetuses and the developing brains and nervous systems of young children. Prenatal and infant mercury exposure is believed to cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. Even low doses can delay walking and talking, shorten attention span, and cause learning disabilities. Mercury in the air ends up in lakes and rivers, and thus ends up accumulating in marine life. We all know that we have mercury in our fish. But did we know about the study that found that almost all of our fish supply is affected?
In Texas, the largest source of mercury air pollution is coal-fired power plants. Our state has 19 and more slated to be built. Just recently, Houston Mayor Annise Parker has requested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers require an environmental impact statement from developers of the proposed Stallion Energy Center project. This is yet another coal-fired power plant in the works. The mayor is concerned that the project will destroy sensitive wetlands and lead to erosion.The damage to the air from such a plant is hopefully a major concern for the Mayor, as well. American coal plants produce 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year. And in addition to mercury, coal-fired plants emit arsenic, chromium, nickel, lead, acid gases, dioxins and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). These substances are known to cause cancer (arsenic, chromium, nickel); damage the nervous system (lead); irritate the nose and throat (acid gases); affect the reproductive endocrine and immune systems (dioxins); and weaken lungs and eyes (VOCs).
In all, Houston’s (and all of Texas, for that matter), has a mighty task to make our air clean and worthy of breathing. The EPA is in a battle right now to finalize its new rule, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which is the first-ever national policy to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. Polluters, their lobbyists and politicians, like Rep. Joe Barton, who hypothesize that mercury in the air has no harmful impacts on health, are hard at work trying to chip away at the rule and the EPA's ability to enforce the Clean Air Act. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will be finalized in November of this year.
Click HERE for ways to join in the fight to keep the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard strong.
Click HERE for a Profile of Texas’ Coal-Fired Plants and Record of Releases.
Click HERE to see what a plant shut down looks like in Port Arthur. Black plumes galore!
Click HERE to see what kids and teens are doing for the environment.
Click HERE to see why I care about clean air and what I am doing about it.
This article is cross-posted at Mom's Clean Air Force