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Outages, Harmful Emissions and the Latest Texas City Emergency

May 4, 2011

In the latest Texas City emergency that had officials scrambling emergency shelter orders, cancelling school and advising people to stay indoors, the 50,000 plus residents can’t but help reminisce that tragic day in 2005 when the BP refinery caught fire and exploding, killing 15 workers and injuring another 170. This city is home to one of the largest collection of petrochemical plants and oil refineries in the world with the BP plant being the third largest in the country and with such concentration losing electricity after a rash of power outages could prove disastrous.

With electricity restored and the city’s plants and refineries starting up operation, officials are making thorough checks to ensure that no harmful emissions or harmful gases affect residents. At the height of the incident, residents complained of smelling intense sulfur odors, and over a dozen people were hospitalized due to respiratory issues. This occurred despite efforts by BP,Valero, Dow Chemical and Marathon Oil to relieve pressure and avoid explosions in their plants and refineries through a process called “flaring” or burning off excess gas – a standard emergency procedure during electricity shutdowns.

There were six companies that experienced the electric outages according to power transmission line operator Texas New Mexico Power (TNMP) Co. Even though the refineries have back-up generators, these facilities were not big enough to supply electricity needed by the power-hungry machineries used in refining crude oil into gasoline.

Blaming the Drought

This is not the first time nature wreaked havoc on Texas electricity infrastructures. The severe cold weather last February triggered a rash of natural gas shortages in the Southwest after causing rolling blackouts in the state. This time, preliminary investigations all point to the extremely dry weather as the culprit, a drought that is extremely rare and out of the ordinary. TNMP blamed the dry weather as the ultimate cause for the power outages as residues accumulated on top of the electrical machineries.

These residues are usually washed off by rain but for the past several months there was a severe lack of rain that could prevent this build-up. With the extremely hot weather, humidity was very high and at this condition the residue can conduct electricity and cause flashes that would disrupt the machineries. After power was restored, work crews began the process of removing these residue build-up using power washing tools. Precautionary measures were also implemented by TNMP as they began spraying all other electrical equipments in the area to remove any potential salt residue build-up.

Grid Operator Partly to Blame?

As investigations continue to identify what really caused the power outages, most of the companies refute what TNMP claims as the cause. According to TNMP, the problems were caused by failures on their end customers own equipment and distribution lines and not on the electricity lines owned and operated by TNMP.

According to the Texas Public Utilities Commission, the problem was caused by chemical gunk on both the refinery electricity facilities and the power grid. Most of the companies affected claimed that they have no reason to believe the problems originated from their end, in contrast to TNMP’s explanation as to the cause of the blackout, pointing out that there were reported problems with a TNMP transformer that caused another set of outages the following day.

Restarting Texas City

While the real cause of the power outages are still to be finalized, the residents, refineries and chemical plants in Texas City are getting back on their feet and have restarted their facilities back to operation. It did however, took several days to complete as the companies affected wanted to ensure that electricity supply has been stabilized and preliminary causes contained. City officials and technical teams from the oil and chemical refineries conducted tests to ensure that there are no harmful levels of emissions and volatile organic compounds that can affect the city and its residents.

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