Changes made after Texas City monitoring problems

April 27, 2011 4:37:51 PM PDT
For the second day in a row, the BP chemical plant in Texas City lost power, forcing the plant to burn off excess gas with a large flare and sending a column of smoke into the air. Unlike yesterday, no shelter-in-place was ever ordered today, but when it comes to testing the air quality which agency should residents believe? On Tuesday, four plants were sending potentially toxic chemicals into the air. One set of air monitoring tests from the fire department showed nothing was wrong with the air, but the tests from the state showed 1,000 parts per million -- beyond what their meters could test.

We wanted to know why there was such a difference. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) wouldn't meet with us to explain to you why their tests were so different or why they sat on those results for at least an hour, maybe as long as three hours.

Regardless of the discrepancies yesterday, when it happened again Wednesday morning, things had changed.

Different day, same view. The Texas City skyline lit up by a chemical flare. This time at the BP chemical plant.

"Around 6, BP Chemical reported to us that they experienced a complete fire failure and were forced to use their flares," Texas City's Emergency Management Coordinator Bruce Clawson said.

That chemical plant is still shut down this afternoon. The cause was likely the same as Tuesday -- a power outage caused by salt on the power lines. We saw Texas New Mexico power crews cleaning off the lines yesterday, but it apparently wasn't enough. Texas City was back in an emergency this morning, but this time there was no need for a shelter-in-place.

But there was something different today. Overnight, Clawson made a change.

"You and I visited yesterday and I reflected on your point," Clawson said.

Today when Clawson needed accurate monitoring of the air in Texas City, he commandeered three of BP contractors -- crews that yesterday reported to BP who in turn passed the info on to the city. But this morning those contractors reported directly to Clawson.

"We cut out the middleman. We cut out the fact that CTech would call someone at BP, they would take a couple minutes and then they would talk to their bosses and they would call us. We cut the middleman out and got our information in minutes," said Clawson.

On Tuesday when four plants were offline, Texas City had to wait on industry and TCEQ results for hours. All the city had were fire department results showing clean air on the outskirts of the danger zone. TCEQ results showed extremely high levels of toxic air, but the state agency apparently sat on that info for hours.

"It would've been nice to know, but it would not have changed anything," said Clawson.

His reasoning is that a shelter-in-place had been ordered hours earlier Tuesday morning before testing was even done and that remained in effect even after they had the high levels back.

The BP plant is offline, as is the massive refinery which produces 435,000 barrels of refined product every day. It hasn't produced even a gallon for the last two days.

Fewer than a hundred Galveston residents are without power Wednesday afternoon after more problems with the transmission lines. CenterPoint Energy says at one point nearly 14,000 homeowners did not have electricity, many of them in the West End community of Jamaica Beach.

Officials say our drought is part of the problem. There hasn't been enough rain to wash away the salty, corrosive residue that has been accumulating on the transmission wires.

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