AGE-old question: toxic spills beside the San Antonio River

Lord willin' and the crick don't rise: AGE on San Antonio River's bank.

Greg Harman

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Now that San Antonio has dodged a fireball at AGE Refining on South Presa and the company fumbling its way out of bankruptsy reorganization, it may be time to consider â?? should the plant fail to recover its bearings â?? just how big a bag of contaminated groundwater will the city be left hosting.

The pollution of the groundwater started under past owner Howell Hydrocarbons, but it has continued under AGE. One local TCEQ official characterized AGE's compliance history as one marred by an “inadequate response to spills."

When Sarah Schreier began remediation duties at the site for the TCEQ in 2008 she wrote to another agency employee that “forward progress on this corrective action seems to have all but stopped.”

The company, with a history of fires and spills (you can see a summary at: â??Too Senile to Survive?'), was supposed to be running a pump to recover and separate hydrocarbons from the groundwater beneath the site. Not only had that pumping stopped, she wrote, but during six months of the previous year had only recovered five gallons of hydrocarbons.

That, apparently, was not due to a lack of pollution to be found.

AGE, at the time, was fighting with Anadarko over a newly discovered plume of jet fuel in the groundwater 40 feet beneath the small refinery. After AGE's 1991 purchase of the plant from Howell, Anadarko took over cleanup of the contamination on behalf of the previous owners. AGE insisted the plume was part of the contamination dating to the plant's older days; Anadarko, in a letter to the TCEQ, objected.

“It seems apparent that the new plume is likely the result of AGE's operation of the refinery for nearly two decades,” wrote Jeff Bordelon, environmental advisor to Anadarko. “The basis for this contention is the fact that Anadarko has discovered information in the TCEQ files that indicate the occurrence of at least ten (10) spills at the AGE Refinery since 1996, including at least one large spill in the 100 Tank Farm Area.”

A 2007 sampling by AGE found pthalates present in one well more than 1,000 times the EPA's drinking water standard. Long-term exposure to pthalates through drinking water is linked to reproductive and kidney problems and elevated cancer risk. In the summer of 2008, Anadarko reported that hydrocarbon contamination in seven of the wells it tested, and that the depth of the contamination had increased in the last 12 months â?? in one well it expanded from a layer .02 feet thick to one 6.53 feet thick.

Then there are the fears of contamination reaching the San Antonio River, which winds within one tenth of a mile of the plant.

While a 1987 TCEQ cleanup order mentioned a seep leading to the San Antonio River from the plant, it wasn't mentioned again when the order was updated in 1995 after AGE's takeover. “Files are sketchy that early,” wrote Schreier, who has since moved to another department. “It might be worth the effort to walk the river bank looking for evidence of a seep.”

When contacted by the Current, Leo Butler, a TCEQ environmental investigator based in San Antonio, recalled Schreier's email but not whether a seep was ever discovered. However, later in the day he communicated through a TCEQ media liason that he had not seen a "sheen" on the river during an inspection and had therefore concluded there was no seep.

With the wells on the site are tested at least twice a year by Anadarko and AGE, TCEQ's most recent inspection report had AGE listed as being in compliance with state environmental rules.

Calls to both AGE and Anadarko were not immediately returned.


Added at 3:30 pm...

When Al Gonzalez took over as owner, he wrote to the TCEQ that while past owners “were somewhat reluctant” to deal with state regulators, he wanted to help foster a “spirit of cooperation.” The company has since changed hands, falling to Glen Gonzalez. And while Anadarko has been critical of AGE's lack of involvement in helping establish a plan for cleaning up the site in the past, according to documents on file with the TCEQ, Anadarko spokesperson John Christiansen said, “I don't think I'm going to get into that at this point.”

Instead of an interview, he offered a prepared release, stating blandly: “We've been working with AGE and the state to resolve the issues regarding the more recently discovered plume, and in the meantime, we've continued to help fund the cleanup of the original plume in accordance with the terms of the joint Consent Decree.”

In a summary of a 2007 meeting with AGE representatives, one TCEQ staffer wrote: “AGE expressed surprise and dismay at being characterized by Anadarko as uncooperative during the development of the work plan, indicating that they met with Anadarko on November 16, 2007, to discuss scope and cost sharing options. TCEQ informed AGE that the work plan was submitted to TCEQ for review on November 15, 2007.”

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