Refinery warnings way of life in Texas City

AP News
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Posted: Apr 26, 2011 6:54 PM
Refinery warnings way of life in Texas City

The sirens from the nearby BP refinery were wailing in Dwight Crawford's neighborhood and he could see the glow from burning flares at the plant.

Crawford, a retired carpenter, said he knew "something messed up" was going on there. Then, the 66-year-old said, he went to sleep.

"It's just a hazard of living close to this plant," he said Tuesday, taking a moment while sipping coffee and reading the newspaper at a table in front of his home.

The BP refinery, where 15 people were killed and 170 were hurt in an explosion six years ago, was among at least four plants in the city about 35 miles southeast of Houston that lost power overnight Monday and into Tuesday. Officials were working to determine what caused the outages, which Texas New Mexico Power said could have stemmed from a buildup of residue on equipment normally washed clear by rain.

BP, Valero, Dow Chemical and Marathon Oil all halted production and lit up the night sky even more than usual by burning off excess gas as a precaution to deter any pressure buildup and explosion.

Emergency preparedness authorities advised people to remain inside, once late Monday night and again before dawn Tuesday. Schools were closed or had delayed openings and some roads near the plants were blocked to traffic.

Residents were told they could go outside again about noon Tuesday, after officials determined that the power outages did not cause the release of unhealthy amounts of harmful gases.

Crawford, who has lived in Texas City for 40 years, says the precautionary "shelter-in-place" recommendations happen all the time.

"I'm going to try to stay inside but I do have to go about my daily routine," he said. "I can't let the plant shut me down. You can't let the plant overrun your life."

The chemical smell that permeates the area normally was a bit more pungent Tuesday.

"There was constant monitoring going on at all times and it did not reveal anything, although there's a strong smell of hydrocarbons in the air," said Bruce Clawson, the Homeland Security coordinator for Texas City.

Clawson said he didn't know what could have been detected but none of the monitors showed hazardous emissions.

"It smells fine," Leonard Senior, 68, said outside the tattoo shop he's had in Texas City for the past 12 years. "If it was worse, they would call and let us know."

The shelter order was lifted more than 12 hours after the initial power problems.

Clawson said the cause of the outages remained unknown, but said city officials want to determine what happened so it's not repeated.

Texas New Mexico Power Co. said the power failure involved a "customer-owned equipment problem." Four "events" affected transmission lines Monday night, according to spokeswoman Cathy Garber.

But she said salt collecting on transmission lines can happen when equipment is close to water, as these are to the Gulf of Mexico.

"April has been extremely dry, which led to this buildup," Garber said. "High humidity late last night and early this morning, coupled with the buildup of residue, appears to have triggered the fault."

She said utility crews were washing equipment to remove the residue.

Dow Chemical Co. spokesman Greg Baldwin said there was "no reason to believe (the outages) originated on our site." Power was back up by late Tuesday morning at the Dow operation, owned and operated by Dow subsidiary Union Carbide Corp.

Start-up procedures were under way at the Valero plant, spokesman Fred Newhouse said. He said the plant's outage overnight appeared to coincide with start-up attempts "at our neighbors at Dow and BP."

BP said cause of the outage was uncertain. It said some power was available within the plant by Tuesday afternoon.

Marathon experienced a brief power dip Monday night and was working to restore the affected units, company spokesman Shane Pochard said.

At BP, a small fire at the refinery was quickly extinguished, spokesman Michael Marr said. There were no injuries. Workers reported for their shifts around sunrise Tuesday as flaring continued.

"That's a normal part of bringing down some of these operating units," company spokesman Tom Mueller said.

The availability of backup power to the plants was uncertain, and company spokesmen did not immediately respond to questions emailed Tuesday evening by The Associated Press.

While the advisory to stay inside was still in effect, Tina McCain was outdoors cleaning off the floor mats of her car. She woke up late Monday night to a smell she described as resembling sewage, looked outside, and _ like Crawford _ eventually went back to sleep.

"We're used to it," she said.

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Associated Press writers Diana Heidgerd, Danny Robbins and Schuyler Dixon in Dallas and Michael Graczyk in Houston contributed to this report.