TEXAS CITY, Texas — At BP’s Texas City refinery, more than 400 pounds a day of benzene — 40 times the state reportable levels — was released during a 40-day period while a subunit of the refinery’s ultracracker unit was offline, according to a company filing with the state’s environmental agency Friday.
In all, BP officials said more than 500,000 pounds of pollutants and nonpollutants were released while the company increased flaring as they tried to repair a compressor on the faulty unit.
Refinery spokesman Michael Marr said in its follow up reporting with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, BP estimated 36,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides and 17,000 pounds of benzene were released in the 40 days. State law requires 10 pounds or more of benzene and 200 pounds or more of nitrogen oxide during a 24-hour period must be reported through the commission’s air emissions database.
Benzene is a carcinogen naturally found in oil that has been linked to some forms of cancer, according to U.S. Health and Human Services records. Nitrogen oxides react to sunlight to form ozone and can damage lung tissue and cause respiratory problems.
However, neither of the levels of the emissions reached levels that required self-reporting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Marr said. The EPA requires any nitrogen oxides release of more than 1,000 pounds a day be reported, while the federal agency does not require reports of benzene emissions.
According to BP’s filing with the TCEQ, the ultracracker’s hydrogen compressor went offline April 6 and was not repaired or restarted until May 16.
Because of the malfunction, the subunit was shut down, and materials were purged and gasses were rerouted to a flare, according to the company’s filing.
The ultracracker, which remained operable, can process 65,000 barrels of oil per day and mostly produces high-octane blending components for gasoline. The ultracracker also can produce ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexane and distillate.
The bulk of the emissions during that time included an estimated 189,000 pounds of carbon monoxide and 61,000 pounds of propane, according to the company’s report to the TCEQ.
"During this time period, the site’s fenceline monitoring did not indicate any excess readings," Marr said. "Also of note, the site performed modeling of the emissions using TCEQ-approved modeling methods, and that modeling did not indicate an exceedance of regulatory exposure limits to workers or the community at any time during the flaring."
TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said the filing starts a process that includes a review by the agency that could end up before the commission’s enforcement division. She said depending on why and what caused the emissions, the agency could take enforcement action.
But without knowing the specifics of the BP emissions, she could not comment on what action the agency could or would take.
She did caution the figures BP included in its report likely were estimates that will be higher than what actually was released.
She said companies that underreport emissions face penalties. So the companies often will "shoot high," Morrow said.
According to BP’s TCEQ filing, all of the figures were estimates.
According to a 2008 report by the Environmental Integrity Project, BP’s Texas City refinery was among four refineries in the nation that had the largest increases in benzene emissions even as overall benzene emissions among U.S. refiners decreased by more than 18 percent between 2000 and 2008.
The environmental group claims refiners actually underreport how much of the carcinogen is released because of inadequate EPA standards.
However, according to a report to the Texas City-La Marque Community Advisory Council by the Galveston County Health District’s director of Environmental Health last summer, benzene emissions in Texas City decreased by 74 percent between 1993 and 2008. That report does not single out BP nor attribute how much each of the city’s chemical plants or refineries reduced benzene emissions.