Hurricane Harvey Challenges Response to Energy Facility Incidents

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By Nushin Huq

Exxon Mobil’s Baytown Refinery near Houston was damaged by Hurricane Harvey, the company told regulators, adding to the number of storm-related incidents challenging officials as feet of rain continue to fall in the state.

The company reported to Texas regulators that the floating roof on one of the tanks at Baytown partially sank during the heavy rains causing benzene and toluene, two carcinogens, and volatile organic compounds to be released. According to the report, a portion of the emissions were within permitted limits. Exxon Mobil shut down its Baytown refinery, the second largest in the U.S., as a precaution during the storm. The company also reported a release of sulfur dioxide emissions at its Beaumont refinery, but said actions “were taken to minimize emissions and to restore the refinery to normal operations.”

The incidents are the latest in a string of problems reported by petrochemical companies in the area as Harvey lingers.

Texas is home to one of the largest concentrations of energy infrastructure and production in the country. The state has 5.6 million barrels per day of petroleum refining capacity, much of that along the coast. There are no levees or barrier islands protecting that infrastructure from hurricane storm surge. Some parts of the state have received more than 50 inches of rain, and water being released from reservoirs and levees to relieve the pressure building behind them only compounds the problem of monitoring and responding to leaks and other incidents.

Monitoring for Incidents

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has been monitoring facilities that have reported spills and providing technical guidance to wastewater facilities in flood-impacted areas, agency spokesman Andrew Keese, told Bloomberg BNA. High water can also pose a risk to energy infrastructure and state regulators are watching for leaks and other incidents.

The commission and other state agencies are giving priority to protecting and preventing imminent threats to public health. Once floodwaters have receded and it is safe to enter flooded areas, debris-removal activities will begin.

“The TCEQ is aware that spills occur during flooding events, and the appropriate primary agency will monitor and work with the responsible party, if known, to take appropriate actions as conditions allow,” Keese said.

Oil, gas and pipelines inspectors at Texas Railroad Commission are on call to respond to reported spills or other incidents as soon as it is safe to do so, Nye, the spokeswoman, said.

The Railroad Commission has jurisdiction over intrastate pipelines, and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) oversees pipelines that cross state boundaries.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is urging oil refineries and chemical plants to follow safety precautions when restarting operations. The board notes that floodwater may leak into tanks or become trapped in insulation, while debris can damage electric motors and block sewers.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is working with pipeline operators to get a better view of their facilities, agency spokesperson Darius Kirkwood said.

“Operators have already contracted staff capable of inspecting critical infrastructure after the storm and they are preparing for aerial inspection of pipeline right-of-ways when it is safe to do so,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Spills Reported

The National Response Center, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, received more than 30 calls for spilled gasoline, crude oil, petroleum, and the release of contaminants from flare stacks in areas affected by Hurricane Harvey.

According to the response center’s records, a caller reported natural gas leaking from a transmission pipeline on Aug. 26 in Ingleside, along the Texas coast. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is investigating.

State and federal regulators have their hands full responding to these incidents and others at energy facilities during the monster storm. They not only will have to contend with the possibility of billions of dollars in infrastructure damage, but potential environmental damages as well.

On Aug. 28, a 14-inch pipeline in La Porte, Texas, spewed toxic gas for several hours. Nearly a day later, it had not been determined what caused anhydrous hydrogen chloride to leak from the pipeline owned by Williams Field Services Gulf Coast, Andrea Morrow of the TCEQ, told Bloomberg BNA.

The gas mixed with moisture in the air to produce hydrochloric acid, a corrosive that can damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin, and intestines. The pipeline was depressurized and the leak ended after a couple of hours.

Other Storm Issues

Shell Oil Deer Park reported to the TCEQ the Aug. 28 discovery that the external floating roof had material on top and in the dike area at the refinery due to Harvey. The company has placed foam on material to lower emissions and is still investigating the situation, according to filed documents.

The Chevron Phillips Chemical Cedar Bayou Plant in Baytown, Texas, reported an unexpected cooling water pump issue during the storm, the company told TCEQ. Process material was routed to fare and cooling water pump was restarted.

In the Baytown incident, the company said the tank will need to be emptied to repair the roof. The company performed a controlled shutdown of the refinery ahead of the hurricane.

Valero also reported that benzene and unspeciated volatile organic compounds got on top of an external floating roof at its facility in Harris County and into a dike firewall through tank roof drains, the company said in a filing to TCEQ.

The Texas Railroad Commission received reports of hurricane-related incidents Aug. 26 and 27.

In the first, Kinder Morgan notified the railroad commission oversight and safety division that a tank at its Pasadena Terminal had tilted due to the large volume of rain from Hurricane Harvey, Ramona Nye, Railroad Commission spokeswoman, told Bloomberg BNA.

The tilting resulted in the release of an unknown amount of gasoline into a containment dike surrounding the dike. Kinder Morgan reported that fire retardant foam had been placed over the exposed liquid contained in the dike, and Kinder Morgan was emptying the liquid from the tank and containment dike.

A day later, the Houston office of the railroad commission, the state’s energy and gas regulator, was notified of a fire in Jefferson County and dispatched a inspector, Nye said. Initial reports indicated a lightning strike on a fiberglass storage tank with resulting fire burning two tanks, releasing fluids into the firewall. An estimated five barrels of crude oil and 20 barrels of produced water was released, but contained within the firewall. Vacuum trucks were brought in to pick up released fluids. The operator was reported as Karbuhn Oil Company.

—With assistance from Sylvia Carignan.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nushin Huq in Houston at nhuq@bna.comTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at

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