Delay in Oil-Spill Notification Probed
Government officials question why Exxon Mobil took so long to alert them
Twenty-four hours is not good enough. We want it at one.' — JIM INDEST, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
State and county environmental officials Wednesday launched independent investigations into a spill at Exxon Mobil's Baytown refinery that showered a public housing project with processing oil.
Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Harris County's Pollution Control and Environmental Health Division said that one question they want answered is why it took Exxon Mobil more than a day to inform authorities that the pollution had entered a community.
State law requires companies to update the agency within 24 hours with any new information pertaining to a pollution release.
But some officials on Wednesday, saying the Exxon Mobil incident "fell through the cracks," said that to protect public health and to arrive on the scene in time to collect evidence, companies would need to report events much sooner — within an hour or less — which would require a change of the law. The federal government requires companies to report spills as soon as they are aware of them.
"They are required to tell us about it, clean it up and send in proof that it has been cleaned up," said Jim Indest, team leader of the TCEQ's emergency response group for the Houston region.
"Very simply, their initial report did not tell us it was getting offsite. That was incorrect."
The incident, according to Exxon Mobil, occurred at 12:01 a.m. Monday. That's when a 150,000-barrel storage tank holding process gas oil heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit mysteriously failed, releasing 1,400 barrels of oil onto the ground and sending a cloud of steam and oil droplets across the street into the Archia Courts public housing complex.
The company's first call to the TCEQ to report the spill occurred 12 hours later, around noon, just about when the refinery's phones started ringing with complaints from residents describing a waxy film on their cars, plants and homes. Exxon Mobil, which said it tested the air before sunrise Monday and found nothing, told the agency the spill had been contained on the plant property.
"We did fenceline monitoring within hours and there was no hydrocarbon vapor detected," said Jeanne Miller, a spokeswoman for the company's Baytown refinery, which ranks as one of the largest in the country. Miller confirmed that the company was in the neighborhood Monday, "taking a look at it," adding that "both activities are very important, working with the neighbors and working with agencies."
All day Tuesday, after getting permission from the Baytown Housing Authority to enter the property, the company cleaned — scrubbing oil splatter off houses, detailing cars and wiping down the playground. It wasn't until Tuesday evening that the TCEQ was told that the incident went off the plant's grounds. County officials didn't know until reading about it in the newspaper Wednesday.
Residents, who were told in a letter from the company delivered to their homes Tuesday morning that the appropriate agencies had been contacted, expressed shock Wednesday that authorities had not been informed initially.
"Oh, my god. I am really scared," said Patricia Robinson, 55, who has lived in Archia Courts for 40 years, and watched Wednesday as Exxon Mobil contractors continued to wash cars and dig up the complex's playground.
The excavation, according to the company, had nothing to do with the spill, but, rather, was to improve the playground, which was missing seats on swingsets and was too close to power lines.
"Exxon must be hiding something," Robinson said. "They are trying to get it cleaned up so fast."
The delay, according to state officials who arrived on scene Wednesday, resulted in little evidence being available to reconstruct what happened. Investigators as of Wednesday afternoon still were having trouble deciding whether to classify it as an air pollution event or an oil spill.
"When we got there today, everything was clean," said Indest. "They had more than 24 hours to do their work. There was nowhere ... to take a sample.
"Twenty-four hours is not good enough. We want it at one," he added, noting that the TCEQ often hears about pollution episodes from third parties.
"We are usually out there a lot sooner than the company ever lets us know," Indest said. In the case of Exxon Mobil, he said "there is enough people working there to notify many agencies and people at the same time."
County investigators, meanwhile, managed to collect two samples of the oily residue from cars, one from a plant and a single water sample. If the release was a gas, evidence would have been much harder to find, said Paul Newman, an air quality permit program manager for Harris County.
"Let's say this was a release of a gas and it migrated through the neighborhood," Newman explained. "You want to know what that was as quickly as possible, and certainly 24 hours later that emission is long gone."
State and local authorities also will be exploring whether the spill created a nuisance condition — infringing on the enjoyment or use of property. Even without a lot of samples, testimony from neighbors and Exxon Mobil's own analysis could be used to make that case.
The penalties for reporting late and creating a nuisance run between $2,500 and $10,000.
Neil Carman, air quality director for the Sierra Club, said the case showed a breakdown in the system. "If there is a potential for public health impacts, then there should be notice as soon as possible," Carman said.