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'Tremendous opportunities for bad explosions': Switch failure led to Texas City power outage, plant flaring, say officials

Early records shows the amount of emissions released during Friday's power outage was one of the area's largest in the last five years.

TEXAS CITY, Texas — Texas City’s top emergency manager credits “the good Lord’s providence” with preventing a major explosion at petrochemical plants.

Bruce Clawson, Emergency Management Coordinator, made those comments to the Galveston County Daily News on Monday, three days after the massive February 4 power outage that left nearly 20,000 homes and businesses in the dark for four hours.

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Clawson was unavailable for an interview Tuesday. However, during a text message exchange with KHOU 11, he singled out the skill of workers at petrochemical facilities, which flared, or burned off chemicals, to reduce pressure and make these refineries safe.

“It can create some tremendous opportunities for bad explosions,” said Ed Hirs, KHOU 11 Energy Expert.

Both Hirs and Clawson said refineries have backup generators but not enough to run at full strength.

“Just like your building has two backup generators to run the elevators and some of the power supplies and to keep water pumping through the building,” said Hirs. “They don’t have enough generation on-site to power the entire plant. That gets to being too expensive.”

Hirs says there are no laws requiring backup generation at these facilities.

Initial reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality show the Valero and Marathon plants emitted more than 132,000 pounds of emissions, including nearly 75,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

“So, one event, one night, produced the same amount of sulfur dioxide, four percent from an entire year,” said Jennifer Hadayia, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s web page on sulfur dioxide, or SO2,  “Short-term exposures to SO2 can harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficult. People with asthma, particularly children, are sensitive to these effects of SO2.”

Laura Lopez, Media and Community Relations Manager with TCEQ, told KHOU 11 in an email, “Estimated emissions may be revised in the final notification (due two weeks from the end of the event) after the entity has fully evaluated an incident. After the final notifications are received, the TCEQ will conduct an investigation of the reported emissions events to determine compliance with applicable rules, permit provisions, notification and reporting requirements.”

Eric Paul, a spokesperson with Texas-New Mexico Power, blamed the outage on the failure of a device called a switch in a substation at around 6:20 p.m. on February 4.

"We’re continuing to look into what caused it to fail; it had been inspected earlier in the week,” wrote Paul in an email to KHOU 11. “Soon after that switch failed, a transmission line de-energized. We’re also looking into why that happened. We haven’t seen indications of connections to wildlife, the cold weather or customer equipment.”

KHOU 11 emailed questions to Valero and Marathon Petroleum about backup generation capabilities on February 4 or possible future changes but had not received a reply as of early Tuesday evening.

Editor's Note: The following video was uploaded on Feb. 4 while the power outage was active.

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