'I'm not surprised': Families worry after 2nd incident at Texas City refinery within 2 months

Lileana Pearson Image
Thursday, June 29, 2023
Families worry after 2nd incident at Marathon Petroleum within months
Texas City residents say they're worried after Marathon Petroleum's chemical leak marks the second incident within months, but they're not surprised.

TEXAS CITY, Texas (KTRK) -- ABC13 is pressing Marathon for answers after a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality report indicates it was nearly an hour after a sulfur dioxide leak began that the city became aware it was starting to impact air quality readings. Sulfur dioxide can be deadly in high enough quantities.

Texas City Emergency Management told ABC13 the series of events that played out Tuesday isn't concerning to them, though other people who live in the area say it is.

When Eyewitness News spoke to emergency managers on Tuesday, they said it was shortly before noon that the Marathon refinery reached out to the city to let them know they would be flaring more than usual, but it was no cause for concern.

"Flaring is a normal part of the process. It's a safe way to have that operation maintained while making their oil and gas," Joe Tumbleson, head of Texas City Emergency Management, said.

Then, shortly before 1 p.m., the fire department reported a rotten egg smell, started air quality testing, and alerted emergency management, who reached back out to the plant.

It was at that time the refinery told the city it was having a sulfur dioxide leak in one of its incinerates. Emergency management said it then put part of the city under a shelter-in-place order because even though the readings weren't showing dangerous levels, they were elevated.

"Due to precaution, we wanted to make sure that there weren't any other areas out there that would be higher than that, so we issued a shelter-in-place for the community," Tumbleson said.

According to a TCEQ report obtained by ABC13, the refinery knew at 11:53 a.m. that a sulfur recovery unit tripped, resulting in the release of 1,300 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

Emergency management said that call they got about the flaring was probably the start of that leak, but it wasn't until just before 1 p.m. that city officials reached out to the plant themselves and became aware it was, in fact, an issue with an incinerator.

ABC13 asked Texas City Mayor Dedrick Johnson about this hourlong window between calls for flaring and the shelter-in-place. He wouldn't go on camera but said if that were the case, he would be very concerned.

One Texas City resident said that's information that, unfortunately, doesn't surprise her.

"There are more leaks than we think. You know, we don't know every single leak they have," Tyona Villalobas said.

The same Marathon refinery also had a deadly fire back on May 15. Tony Buzbee is the lawyer who represents the family of Scott Higgins, the man who died in the fire.

"We're told it was because of a leaky pump, and we haven't been told too much other than that we've had to sue to try and get some information, and it seems to me Marathon has kind of a history of not telling the public what is going on," Buzbee said.

Several others went to the hospital and reported being injured in the incident. Mo Aziz is a lawyer representing six contractors who were working at the refinery that day.

"When you have repeated leaks or uncontrolled releases, that is evidence that the process is not being safely managed," Aziz said.

Both lawyers said this refinery has a history of dangerous and deadly incidents when it was owned by British Petroleum (BP), and now that it's owned by Marathon, families of those hurt and killed are calling for two issues: more checks and balances and more transparency.

"I can tell you I'm not surprised. There is a cloak of secrecy over that plant, and when things happen, they fail to tell people what's going on and the people nearby what's going on," Buzbee said.

"The fact that they are having continuous and recurrent leaks into the atmosphere, what happened a few months ago, what happened again, that shows that process safety management principles are not being met," Aziz said.

Both agree residents in Texas City shouldn't see a shelter-in-place and alarms as the norm.

"I don't want to tell the folks in Texas City and La Marque that you should be terrified, but I would say that Marathon is not very forthcoming about what is happening in its plant," Aziz said.

Marathon has said it is investigating the incident. ABC13 has reached out to them with additional questions Wednesday, but we have not heard back.

ABC13 notes that the Texas City mayor is employed by the Marathon refinery. While not unusual for mayors to hold second jobs in the community, Eyewitness News did bring it up with the mayor. He told ABC13 he isn't involved in the part of the operation dealing with these incidents and doesn't see a conflict of interest.

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