The company that owns a Crosby chemical plant where one worker was killed and two others critically injured during an April explosion and fire was hit this week with nearly $80,000 in fines for an alleged pattern of past violations of environmental laws at the facility.
State environmental regulators on Wednesday approved the fine for KMCO for a string of violations going back to 2012. They cited the Crosby plant for failing to follow the Clean Air Act’s permitting and reporting procedures over five years, including problems with unpermitted flares, exceeding emissions and failing to conduct regular inspections, state documents show.
The fines don’t cover the April 2 incident, when a transfer line carrying isobutylene, a flammable gas, ignited, killing James Earl “Bubba” Mangum. While investigations into the incident are ongoing, KMCO said in May that a burst pipe was at fault.
The Crosby plant produces coolant and brake fluid for the automotive industry and chemicals for the oil field industry.
While this is the largest amount that KMCO has been fined for air-pollution violations in the past decade, it is not a significant penalty, said Gabriel Clark-Leach, senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project in Texas.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board on Tuesday issued its final report on a deadly release of toxic chemicals at DuPont’s LaPorte facility in 2014, concluding that a long chain of failures, including in equipment design and lax safety, led to the deaths of four workers, including a woman from Groves.
Almost five years ago, close to 24,000 pounds of deadly methyl mercaptan escaped through two valves in a poorly ventilated insecticide production unit at the facility, killing three operators and a shift supervisor — the deadliest accident at a chemical plant in the Houston area in more than a decade.
Lead investigator Tamara Qureshi said the investigation determined that the release resulted from “a flawed engineering design and the lack of adequate safeguards.”
Qureshi said numerous safety management shortcomings made matters worse, including “deficiencies in formal process safety culture assessments, auditing and corrective actions, and troubleshooting operations.”
The Harris County Attorney’s office, concerned about what it says is a history of environmental violations by Valero Energy Corp., will seek permission Tuesday to sue the refinery operator in federal court.
The county already has a lawsuit pending in state district court, but Rock Owens, Harris County’s chief environmental prosecutor, said that is limited to a single emissions event. The federal case would cover a five-year history of violations of federal law.
The Harris County attorney is asking the commissioners court on Tuesday for permission to file what is called a citizen environmental lawsuit that seeks injunctive relief and/or penalties and attorney’s fees against the company “in order to compel compliance with environmental law.”
“The goal is to obtain federal court orders that will help reduce the refinery’s negative impact on the Manchester community,” Owens said, referring to the community in southeastern Houston. “We can’t get that kind of relief under state law.”
With hurricane season underway, contractors this week secured a sloped area of the San Jacinto Waste Pits that has needed multiple repairs over the years — an interim fix while officials continue to work on a design to remove cancer-causing toxic substances from the site.
The pits became a federal Superfund site in 2008 and were capped in 2011, partly in response to prior reports of leaks and fears of damage from hurricanes. But the northwest side has been a source of trouble, especially during heavy storms and hurricanes, because it includes a steep slope.
After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency found dioxin sediment near the pits at a level that wasmore than 2,000 times the agency’s standard for cleanup. While rocks have been used to help keep the cap on the flat parts of the site, the rocks would slide off the northwest side, said Gary Baumgarten, project manager with the EPA.
On May 20, a team of divers and workers began placing what’s called an articulated concrete block mat to extend from the surface of the capped area to the floor of the San Jacinto River. Once the mat was in place, they brought out a special mix of concrete and pumped it into tubes that are part of the blockmat, Baumgarten said. Work was finished Wednesday.
Short-term air and water quality impacts from last month’s spill of thousands of barrels of gasoline product into the Houston Ship Channel appear to be limited, an outcome experts credit to a rapid response that contained and removed the toxic product.
A tugboat pushing two barges — each with a capacity to hold up to 25,000 barrels — collided May 10 with a 755-foot tanker, the Genesis River, carrying liquefied natural gas. The tanker’s hull punctured two of the smaller vessel’s four storage tanks, leaking what turned out to be 11,276 barrels of a gasoline product called reformate, a highly flammable chemical that’s mixed with gasoline and can have high concentrations of the carcinogen benzene.
Aerial footage showed a gash in one of the barges and a sheen floating on the water. The other barge capsized but did not leak any product. The tug, which had four crew aboard, was undamaged.
What happens after a spill like this depends not only on the amount leaked into the water or the toxicity of the product spilled, said Erin Kinney, a coastal ecology research scientist for the Houston Advanced Research Center. Another factor, Kinney said, is whether the product breaks down immediately through air or wind action, or if it takes longer and requires the use of dispersants.
“In this most recent spill there were volatile compounds that quickly got into the air,” she said. “It has the potential to affect air quality — I believe that’s what people could smell — but tends to quickly dissipate as you move away from the incident site.”