July 31, 2019, at 11:00am ExxonMobil Olefins Plant, a petrochemical facility located in Baytown, Texas next to ExxonMobil refinery experienced an explosion at 11:00 am. A polypropylene unit erupted in flames from causes yet to be known.
Polypropylene is a plastic feedstock derived from the processing of natural gas. Natural gas goes through “gas separation” to create feedstocks (ethane, propane, butanes, field condensates). From here the feedstocks are sent to a steam cracker unit and processed into polypropylene and other petrochemicals.
- American Chemistry Council
According to EPA polypropylene is commonly used to make reusable food containers and beverage bottle caps. A precautionary shelter-in-place order was issued after ExxonMobil requested one for communities west of the plant at 11:47am. Goose Creek Independent School District stated that the GC Service Center, Robert E. Lee High School, Peter E Hyland, IMPACT ECHS, San Jacinto Elementary, Travis Elementary, and Baytown Junior were all included in the shelter-in-place.
The health impacts reported from exposure from the vapors were dizziness or asphyxiation without warning.
Unfortunately, fires like Exxon’s happen too frequently in Houston Ship Channel communities. In fact, Exxon had another large fire just in March of this year big enough for Harris County to sue them over their unauthorized emissions. Soon after, there were major fires at ITC Deer Park and KMCO – both are known repeat violators of environmental laws. There are dozens of facilities along the Channel and in the Houston area that burden communities and perpetuate environmental health injustices. Despite this fact, the TCEQ doesn’t consider cumulative impacts when it permits these facilities.
Our communities need a strong national chemical security policy and for the Trump administration to stop trying to roll back the existing Chemical Disaster Rule. Instead, we need for our environmental regulators to close dangerous loopholes that allow more harmful pollution in our communities. But even now, the Trump administration is trying to allow Texas to keep a loophole that lets polluters, like Exxon, evade financial penalties when they say they have malfunctions.
Although air monitoring results have not been released the documented effects of exposure to these substances has a variety of information gaps including a lack of information registering from air monitors in the affected area and insufficient federally approved EPA monitors. All of these are repeated concerns that were raised during the ITC disaster when local news stations revealed the abundance of ozone monitors and lack of Air Toxics and VOC monitoring. A lack of information may be strengthened by existing exemptions such as the January 2019 Polymer Exemption under (TSCA) Toxic Substance Control Act, reducing industries “reporting burden”.
EPA UPDATE on fire August 1, 2019 - EPA is working with the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and Harris County to respond to a fire/explosion that occurred at the ExxonMobil Baytown Olefins Plant on July 31. EPA has deployed emergency response personnel and rapid assessment assets, including the ASPECT aircraft, to assist with the response. The fire was extinguished at 9:00 pm, (corrected by ExxonMobil to 9:30) but ExxonMobil will continue to apply water to the tower for vapor suppression and to prevent re-ignition. Air monitoring conducted along the perimeter and in adjacent community areas has not detected any contaminants of concern. EPA will continue to closely monitor the situation and provide additional response assistance as needed.
ExxonMobil Plastics Production Ramping Up
ExxonMobil is only one of many petrochemical facilities heavily investing in plastics production. Early this year the gas and oil giant revealed their $20 billion dollar Grow the Gulf Initiative. From 2013-2011 more than a dozen major chemical, refining, lubricants and liquified natural gas projects. According to the American Chemistry Council, U.S. chemical exports are expected to increase on average 7% through 2023. ExxonMobil is investing more than $20 Billion over 10 years to build and expand 11 manufacturing facilities.
ExxonMobil commenced operation at its 1.5-million-ton ethane steam cracker at the company’s Baytown Olefins plant in 2018. The new cracker, part of the ExxonMobil’s multi-billion-dollar Baytown chemical expansion project.
History of Non-compliance
The EPAs Enforcement and Compliance History Online has confirmed the following violations and is not a comprehensive list. In 5 years the states fledged two administrative formal actions against ExxonMobil Olefins. In 2017 the EPA raised a judicial action against the facility. The facility has numerous violations over air, water and hazardous waste.
March 4, 2016 - The first compliance investigation was filed by the state on with a total of $7,975 in penalties.
October 8, 2017 - The second action was filed on with a total of $11,625 in penalties.
June 6, 2018 - Baytown’s ExxonMobil Olefins Plant had 3 formal enforcement actions in the past 5 years with only one ending in a formal lawsuit brought on by EPA for violation of the Clean Air Act. Failure to properly monitor industrial flares at their petrochemical facilities (over 8 facilities), Exxon was required to spend $300 million to install and operate air pollution control and monitoring technology to reduce air pollution from 26 industrial flares. The federal penalty was set at $2,030,00, state penalty was set at $470,000.
March 16, 2019 - Fire erupted at the refinery, Harris County confirmed that toxic pollutants for eight days and were being sued for
violating the Clean Air Act. This was the day before the historical Intercontinental Terminals (ITC) Fire and KMCO Chemical Plant
Timeline of events
July 31, 2019
(11:00 am)- @CityofBaytown, the cities official twitter, alerts community members of a “fire” at ExxonMobil but no shelter-in-place at the
(11:11 am)- CAER releases information to community about fire occurring inside ExxonMobil.
(11:26 am) - @CityofBaytown notifies public that Exxon (@ExxonMobilBTA) has asked that a shelter-in-place be issued west of its plant and
south of 330 out of abundance of caution and that the fire contained polypropylene material.
(11:47 am) - @CityofBaytown issues precautionary shelter-in-place due to an emergency at ExxonMobil only for area west of ExxonMobil.
(1:04 pm) -ExxonMobil workers return to the facility, as the fire continues. They are seen entering without any personal protective equipment.
(1:39 pm) - @ExxonMobilBTA reveals that 6 people received medical attention and that air monitoring on the site and the fenceline was being
conducted by ExxonMobil’s Industrial Hygiene staff
(2:00 pm) - ExxonMobil holds press conference at Baytown Police Department. No official written statement on ExxonMobil's Press Release
(3:00pm) - City of Baytown lifts Shelter-in-Place. Harris County states the Baytown Emergency Operations Center ordered and lifted the
shelter in place as a precaution.
(3:07pm) - reports reveal that 37 people were taken to an off-site clinic due to minor first-degree burns.
(3:20 pm) Harris County Public health announces the temporary closure of WIC Center in Baytown due to fire and cancels all appointments
for the day.
(4:13 pm) - City of Baytown issues an All-Clear for Shelter-in-Place and asks for residents with questions to call the hotline (281-666-8038)
(8:28 pm) - @ExxonMobil states the media reports of 66 injured are inaccurate, 66 employees and contractors were examined at an
occupational health clinic and released.
ReadyHarris the county alert system discloses that ExxonMobil reported that 66 employees/contractors went to the Houston Area
Safety Council for medical evaluation. Air monitoring by Harris County did not detect any levels of concern at the plant or
August 1, 2019
(1:03pm) - ExxonMobil Olefins Plant sets up a claims form for residents affected at (800-241-9010)
What does Shelter-In-Place mean?
Go inside immediately. Close and secure all doors and windows securely with a plastic tarp between 4-6mil in thickness and secure with duct tape. Turn off all ventilation systems (air conditioning, heating). Listen to the radio or television and in this instance. It is important to consider the temperature conditions. Official SIP is declared by county and local officials. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services is not a government entity)
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