Is AGE(d) Refinery too senile to survive?

Greg Harman

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Now that we know the fire at AGE Refining's Southside plant wasn't the work of rabid environmentalists out to localize the message of our dying Gulf of Mexico (but thanks Rush for that from-the-hip ungrounded speculation, we've come to expect no less) and was an official “accident,” according to our Fire Chief, all of San Antonio waits anxiously to find out why a good chunk of us were very nearly fried to a crisp on May 5 when a tanker truck exploded at the half-century-old in-town refinery.

One thing is clear: We've burned this way before.

Back in 2004, a leak from a “pinhole” five feet below of the top of a crude oil tower dampened the exterior insulation and tower's base leading to a morning blaze. It was extinguished by the San Antonio Fire Department within 15 minutes after they arrived.

Four years later, on August 20, 2008, a power outage diverted explosive chemicals to the flare. Unfortunately, under high pressure, vapors also began venting out of a “knockout pot” at the base of the flare. Then they ignited, burning for about six minutes before employees doused the flames, according to TCEQ records.

As an older facility, AGE is prone to act up during stressful situations. Perhaps that's why one former neighbor complained to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality about truckers idling in his yard smoking cigarettes as they waited their turn to pick up or drop off jet fuel ingredientsl. Not only could the TCEQ not take action about trucks parking where they oughtn't, responded now Executive Director Glenn Shankle, but they weren't about to encroach on matters of personal liberty. “Personal smoking is not within the regulatory jurisdiction of the TCEQ,” Shankle wrote.

My would-be whistleblower wasn't sure he wanted to go on the record either when I tracked him down on Tuesday, commiserating instead with AGE's management: “They've got enough to deal with these days.”

TCEQ inspectors wrote in 2002: “As a result of our investigation, it was determined that AGE has had multiple events in the truck loading racks `site of the May 5 explosion`. Events occurred on January 15, 2002, January 29, 2002, January 30, 2002, February 21, 2002, and February 28, 2002, that could have been prevented by good operations. In each of the events, the operator overfilled trucks.”

Speaking of overfill: in a quick check of regional TCEQ records we found spills galore at the refinery (all since cleaned up, we're told). There were 1,200 gallons of solvent and 8,600 gallons of crude oil spilled onsite in 2004, and 1,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled onsite in 2008. Last year, about 400 gallons of naptha were spilled at the refinery. A week after receiving the news, one TCEQ employee wrote: “The incident appears to have been properly addressed. No further action by the TCEQ is warranted at this time.”

On top of OSHA's jackboot of an investigation and TCEQ's years of softshoe, now newly bankrupt AGE officials have growing public scrutiny to deal for all those years of playing cat-and-mouse with the TCEQ over missing records and emissions data. Word is spreading about public demonstrations gathering for next week. Every time I find myself feeling sorry for AGE owner Glen Gonzales, I just remember how close we came to a half-mile-wide fireball on the Southside. We then pretend we were a resident at the nearby San Antonio State Hospital. Being charcoal isn't any kind of ambition, no matter how crazy you are.

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