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Authorities Give Conflicting Accounts of Latest Toxic Releases From Texas City Refineries

After power failures caused toxic releases at several Texas City refineries, conflicting accounts from local officials and environmental regulators about emissions levels have raised more questions than answers.

This post has been updated.

BP's troubled Texas City refinery as well as another refinery operated by Valero Energy Corporation have reportedly released more than 150,000 pounds of pollutants into the air after power troubles forced emergency shutdowns at several refineries in the area. That figure is expected to grow as the companies restart their equipment and file more emissions reports with regulators.

What's not clear is how the sizable release has affected air quality in the area. Conflicting accounts from local officials and environmental regulators about air monitoring results have raised more questions than answers.

Texas City officials—relying on air monitoring data from a BP contractor and the fire department—have said that emissions hadn’t reached harmful levels. "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," Bruce Clawson, Texas City's Homeland Security coordinator, told the Associated Press.

But that’s not what officials at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have said. According to the environmental agency, the levels of chemical emissions were at one point so high that they maxed out the monitoring equipment. “Values were outside the range our instrument can read,” an agency spokesman told the Galveston Daily News. “Maximum readings taken by TCEQ staff were in excess of the instruments measurement capability.”

Why the contradictory information? We’ve called both the TCEQ and the Texas City Homeland Security coordinator for details but have not heard back. Earlier this week, residents were instructed to stay indoors, though that advisory has since been lifted. Some residents have reported health effects, and at least 25 people went to the hospital.

At this point, the cause of the power outages is still being investigated. The Houston Chronicle reported today that both the power grid operator, Texas New Mexico Power, and BP seem to have had problems with their equipment. BP’s Texas City plant, in particular, has had a troubled history of failing equipment and other safety problems despite the more than $1 billion the company has spent on improvements. As we’ve reported, 19 workers have died in accidents at the refinery since 2005—15 of those in the infamous 2005 explosion.

Last year BP's Texas City plant also released more than 500,000 pounds of toxic chemicals over a period of 40 days when flares didn’t burn off the chemicals and the plant’s air monitors failed to detect the extent of the emissions for several weeks. The Daily News notes that after this incident, regulators also questioned whether the air monitoring data at the time was accurate:

The less than consistent and readily available emissions data has been a thorn in the city’s and local industry’s side before.

Last year, BP and city officials reported that despite a release of more than 500,000 pounds of chemicals during a 40-day emissions event, there were no unhealthy readings in the air detected through air monitors and the community air monitoring stations. TCEQ has yet to verify that data fully and has called some of the data suspect.

The company announced in February that it was seeking to sell the refinery, along with another in Los Angeles. BP has not responded to our request for comment.

Update, 4/29: The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality now tells us that it conferred with the manufacturer of its monitoring equipment and believes its data on high levels of contaminants were inaccurate. “Our hand-held monitor indicated the presence of air contaminants in excess of the equipments detection limits. These readings have been determined to be invalid,” agency spokeswoman Andrew Morrow told me. Morrow said the agency still believes that the order for residents to stay inside was appropriate.

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