Saturday, April 09, 2005

Living under the volcano

While the world made a public spectacle of the Schiavo family's private struggle, and as the Pope teetered on the brink of death, my world stopped at 1:20pm on March 23. A loud boom followed by a rush of wind slamming into my house shook me to my core. I thought, not again, as I walked outside to see what the noise was. Just as I feared, there had been an explosion at the BP refinery.
A plume of bluish gray, black, and white smoke rose more than 500 feet above the refinery as flames shot into the air. I stood in my grandmother's front yard two doors down on the corner and watched the fire burn. While I stood there, I heard alarms at the Dow refinery, and then the all clear as it was determined that it was a the BP refinery.
Probably the one thing that has stuck with me are those images, and then the sounds of the police cars rushing to the scene two at a time. That was soon followed by news helicopters hovering overhead.
Two weeks later, I keep telling myself I'm over it. I'm fine, but I realize I'm not. My grandmother, who was with me when the blast hit the house, is the same way. Just the slightest noise startles her. Of course, this was her first major explosion since 1947, when the SS Grandcamp exploded in Texas City. She was at home in Galveston, but she told me that how it felt at our house is how it felt then at her home.
For many hours after the blast, the sounds of ambulance sirens and medical helicopters filled the air. It looked and sounded like a war zone. Watching the news that afternoon, a worst case scenario unfolded. Hundreds were injured and people were dead. I had not heard of anyone dying in a refinery explosion in Texas City since May 30, 1978, when seven people died in a Texas City Refining explosion.
The hardest thing to accept was 15 people were dead, and no one knew why. All the investigations pointed to the fact that they were in trailers close to the blast site. The medical examiner confirmed that all injuries were blast injuries. Of course, reading message boards on the internet, a different story tends to unfold. People were trapped in the blast zone until rescuers could get the fire out, and then dig through the debris to find them. I mourned the loss of those 15 people, regardless of whether or not they were from here. They were human just like me. They left behind children, grandchildren, wives, husbands, fiances, mothers, fathers, and grieving families.
Worst of all, it was close to the Easter holiday, a time when families come together. I read a story on the AP wire about a woman headed to Texas City from Louisiana to see her parents for the holiday when she heard the news. Naturally, she feared the worst, and sadly, those fears were confirmed when she was told to go to the civic center instead of the hospital. She lost both her parents.
As my grief subsides, it's replaced by anger. Anger that this was a preventable tragedy in so many ways. The people that died should not have been placed in trailers so close to such a dangerous work site. When my mom told me the turnaround period had started at the refinery, I braced myself for noisy nights as units were shut down.
This was a period of maintenance in order to prepare the refinery for the busy summer season. As an isomerization unit was being brought online, there was a release of hydrocarbon out of a vent stack which appered to be water to most people.
The investigation reveals that maybe an idling diesel truck had been parked nearby, and that was what sparked it. However, since a diesel engine does not use spark plugs, it is possible that it pulled the vapor into its intake, or the heat from its exhaust could have set off the explosion.
What's most upsetting is that this was preventable. Those trailers could have been placed somewhere else. That unit could have had a flare attached to it instead of venting into the atmosphere as it was designed. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, OSHA, the government's safety enforcement officer, had warned the company when it was Amoco in '92 to add a flare to the isom unit, but OSHA eventually dropped the issue.
BP has now moved the trailers, but to me it's too little too late. OSHA has been aware of violations in the past, but they have shown weakness in settling too quickly in order to bring the unit back online to continue production.
Living near these refineries for nearly 30 years has been a lot like living near a volcano. It's dangerous, it's going to erupt, but no one knows when.

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