Shelter-in-place lifted in Texas City after odor complaint at Marathon refinery

Lileana Pearson Image
Wednesday, June 28, 2023
Shelter-in-place lifted after chemical leak at Marathon refinery
The sulfer plant at the Marathon Galveston Bay Refinery is at the center of attention after a chemical leak sparked a shelter-in-place in Texas City.

TEXAS CITY, Texas (KTRK) -- A shelter-in-place has been lifted for Texas City residents after an odor complaint prompted an investigation Tuesday afternoon.

"An all clear has been issued," the City of Texas City tweeted. "There is no longer a shelter in place."

Texas City officials said that multiple agencies have been conducting air monitoring, and all readings in the affected areas and throughout the city are back to normal.

In a 3 p.m. update, Joe Tumbleson, the emergency manager and homeland security director for the city of Texas City, said that at about 12:50 p.m., Marathon Petroleum's Galveston Bay Refinery Sulfur Plant reported an "upset" at one of the units, which caused the release of sulfur dioxide, SO2.

The gas was able to get into the community in the form of a rotten egg smell.

Tumbleson said Marathon Petroleum had reached out earlier in the day, at about noon, and said they would be flaring more than usual, but the situation was under control. Then, shortly before 1 p.m., the Texas City Fire Department detected a bad smell and started air quality testing. That bad smell prompted emergency management to reach back out to the refinery, which told them there was a sulfur dioxide leak in its incinerator. That information prompted emergency management to set off their sirens and initiate the shelter-in-place.

Tumbleson said they wanted to make sure the readings weren't higher in other areas, as, in high concentration, sulfur dioxide could be fatal. But high readings were never picked up. Air monitoring will continue now that the shelter-in-place has been lifted.

"Marathon usually leaves their third-party air quality monitoring company they hire to continue monitoring for a period afterward. So we will always be ready to monitor at a moment's notice if anyone has any odor complaints," Tumbleson said.

"On June 27, 2023, at approximately 12:40 p.m., Blanchard Refinery Galveston Bay Refining (Blanchard) reported that on June 27, 2023, at approximately 11:53 a.m. the Sulfur Recovery Unit tripped, resulting in emissions of approximately 1,300 pounds of sulfur dioxide. The unit is now stabilized, and the shelter-in-place is lifted. The TCEQ remains in contact with the facility to assess status and emission levels," the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said.


Fewer than 30 minutes before issuing the order, Texas City tweeted that Marathon was flaring and no action was needed.

Marathon Petroleum issued the following statement:

"Marathon Petroleum personnel are responding to an operational issue at the Galveston Bay Refinery Sulfur Plant and are working to resolve the matter. A limited refinery shelter-in-place has been declared for affected areas within the facility, and the city of Texas City has issued a shelter-in-place for the affected portions of the community east of 146. The health and safety of our workers, responders and the community are our top priority. Air monitoring is in progress, and appropriate agencies have been notified. There have been no injuries reported."

In efforts to keep students and staff safe, Texas City ISD said that all outdoor activities during its summer school and youth camps were canceled at its Texas City campuses. Students were moved indoors until the all-clear.

While no injuries were reported, EMS did check out a deputy who reported feeling sick, as he was working as a school resource officer at Texas City High School, the Galveston County Sheriff's Office said.

The decision to lift the order was lifted shortly before 3 p.m.

"In this case, we wanted no reports of odor and no reports of air monitor reading from any of the agencies out air monitoring. We also want to confirm visually because, in this instance, we could see the release on live video feed we have in our EOC. You could see the white cloud coming out of the incinerator stack," Tumbleson said.

While the order was in place, many residents still chose to work and walk outside. One grain store employee who works just blocks from the refinery said the orders are just part of life in Texas City.

"No, this is pretty casual. It happens from time to time if there is any kind of chemical spill or anything like that comes around. This is just what happens. It's kind of normal," Chase Brook said.

Last month, Marathon employee Scott Higgins, 55, died when a fire broke out at the refinery.

Higgins' family announced they're filing a lawsuit against Marathon Petroleum, claiming wrongful death and negligence.

The civil lawsuit is being handled by Attorney Tony Buzbee, and it claims he burned to death. The family said it has not been able to get any answers from the company about what happened.

According to an initial report from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, it was a splitter on Ultraformer Unit #3 that developed a leak and caught on fire.

The family claims negligence on behalf of Marathon and others in failing to "properly and adequately manage, inspect, maintain, and repair" that unit and surrounding machinery.

RELATED: 'Tox-Doc' says shelter-in-place should've been ordered amid Marathon Petroleum plant fire

We now know what was burning in the fire at Marathon Petroleum, but now the question is why a shelter-in-place was not issued.