Getting to the Bottom of the Leaks at BP’s Texas City Refinery

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

An oil refinery blow off stack in Texas City

There were reports earlier this week of leaks of at the BP refinery in Texas City, the site of a 2005 explosion that killed fifteen and injured 140 more.

The gases that were reportedly leaked were sulfur dioxide, a pollutant regulated by the EPA and linked to respiratory issues, and methyl mercaptan, a smelly gas — think rotten cabbage — added to natural gas (which is odorless) as a safety measure.

City Emergency Manager Responds

StateImpact Texas spoke with Texas City Emergency Manager and Homeland Security Director Bruce Clawson today about the situation at the plant. He says there has been no known leak of sulfur dioxide, but confirmed an ongoing leak of methyl mercaptan.

The gas leaking from the plant, he says “smells ugly and makes you sick. It’s not a small matter.” Clawson says that he is monitoring it carefully and will notify the public to shelter in place if need be. “There have been times where it certainly stinks, but it hasn’t gotten to [that] level,” he says. On Wednesday, local news reported that thirty workers at the neighboring Dow plant asked for medical attention after being exposed to the gas, and some of them were sent to the hospital.

“So far the amount being leaked given the wind speed and the height it’s being released at. Certainly it’s unpleasant and a quality of life issue. I’m not aware that in the public that it’s caused anything other than discomfort. A small amount of mercaptan goes a long way. It’s an extremely unpleasant odor.”

Reports of Sulfur Dioxide May be Inaccurate

As for the reported leak of sulfur dioxide, a caller reported it Monday to the National Response Center, the federal division for reporting oil and chemical spills. The sulfur dioxide leak was initially reported by Bloomberg and the Houston Chronicle’s FuelFix. They wrote that the emergency management coordinator for Texas City had confirmed that the sulfur dioxide leak “had been halted.” These reports may have been inaccurate, as there has been no confirmed leak of sulfur dioxide at the plant by Texas City Emergency Management or BP.

“I’m not notified when something comes in to the National Response Center,” Texas City Emergency Manager Bruce Clawson told StateImpact Texas. “Normally it’s the industries that notify me of these issues. I don’t know who made it. It was made by a person in the complex but not by an official.”

BP responded to the reports late Wednesday evening, saying that there was no leak of sulfur dioxide but that there was an ongoing “issue” with methyl mercaptan escaping the plant.

When Will the Leaks Stop?

The stinky methyl mercaptan leak started last Friday and has been going for a week, according to Clawson. “It is thought to be bubbling out of a tank,” he says. “It is still ongoing.”

And it’s not clear how much of the stinky gas is leaking. Clawson says that while there is monitoring around the facility, it is only being done by BP. “I have access to the data and receive briefings daily,” he says, but the only monitoring data he has on the leak comes from BP.

StateImpact Texas requested data on the leak from Texas City Emergency Manager Bruce Clawson, but he said it would have to come from BP. We’ve requested it from BP and will report when they respond.

So when will the leak be fixed? Clawson says that “I think every day they think they get a grip on it and a different problem appears.”

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