Exxon Mobil Refinery Chemical Leak Leads To Evacuations
A pipeline leak of a highly flammable chemical outside an ExxonMobil plant in Baytown prompted the evacuation of nearby residents Sunday morning, along with a shelter-in-place warning that extended into the afternoon.
No one was injured in the leak of dilute propylene, a highly flammable gas often used for fuel, in the leak of a pipeline extending from the largest chemical plant and oil refinery complex in the country.
Emergency responders evacuated residents in the area and successfully shut down two valves to stop the leak, said Victor Medrano, assistant fire chief for the Baytown Fire Department. He said his team took extra precautions because the agent does not easily dissipate.
Ashley Smith Alemayehu, an ExxonMobil spokeswoman, said the company has launched an investigation into the incident to determine the leak’s source. The pipelines will not be restarted until “it is safe to do so,” she added.
Medrano said he responded to reports of a pipeline leak near ExxonMobil’s plant on Bayway at 10:10 a.m.
At 10:30 a.m., the Baytown Police Department issued a shelter-in-place warning for residents near the 5500 block of Bayway Drive, between Park and Arbor streets, due to a “chemical emergency.” Less than an hour later, the department said it planned to evacuate residents from the community 25 miles east of downtown Houston.
ExxonMobil confirmed the leak in a statement earlier Sunday.
“ExxonMobil Pipeline Company has shut down two chemical product pipelines in Baytown this morning to investigate a release,” the statement said. “We are working with local emergency responders and closely with local officials to ensure the safety of the public. We are continuing to investigate the source of the release.”
The incident occurred at a facility that stores and handles numerous dangerous chemicals and has a history of chemical leaks and other incidents. According to an analysis by Texas A&M University, in partnership with the Chronicle, ExxonMobil’s Baytown Chemical Plant has a high potential for harm to the public, as does the company’s nearby refinery.
Propylene is a highly flammable, colorless fuel gas produced during the refining of gasoline. The chemical, which bears similarities to propane, can also be used to make acetone and plastics.
In addition to dangers from its explosive properties, exposure to propylene can lead to a litany of adverse health effects, ranging from mild to severe. Eye and skin irritation, dizziness, fatigue, headaches and a feeling of intoxication can result when propylene is breathed or passes through the skin. Severe exposure can lead to breathing issues, liver and kidney damage, unconsciousness and death.
The chemical has been the source of several high-profile leaks and accidents in recent years, according to U.S. Chemical Safety Board documents.
In June 2005, a small fire on a propylene tank at the St. Louis Praxair Distribution plant spread to nearby tanks in a chain reaction. As they exploded, dozens of tanks were propelled into the surrounding community, resulting in extensive damage to property and additional fires.
Six months later, in October, a propylene leak and subsequent explosion at a Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort caused a fire that burned for five days, forcing the evacuation of a nearby elementary school. Sixteen workers were injured, one seriously.
In June 2013, a propylene explosion and fire at a petrochemical plant in Geismar, La., killed one person and injured 70. Residents within a two-mile radius of the facility sheltered in place.
ExxonMobil’s Baytown facilities have a history of releases and other chemical incidents, according to news media reports.
On May 11, employees at the ExxonMobil Corp.’s Baytown Refinery sheltered in place during another release that the company said resulted from an operational failure. No residents were evacuated during that incident. The company monitored the air quality around the facility and in the community before resuming operations.
In September, ExxonMobil had a leak at its Baytown Olefins Plant. Company officials said at the time that the release had no impact on the community and that they found no detectable levels of hydrocarbons in the surrounding air.
In March 2012, the company reported a pipe leak to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“Leak was isolated and line was depressurized. There was no impact on production and all customer needs were met,” ExxonMobil wrote in a TCEQ filing.
Later that year, ExxonMobil reported to TCEQ that its refinery experienced a unit shutdown following a leak of a heat exchanger tube. The company estimated that 61,958 pounds of carbon monoxide, 51,437 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 1,057 pounds of hydrogen sulfide would be released, according to media reports at the time.
In January 2010, the company’s Baytown refinery reported a flare and line leak at its gofiner unit, caused by cold weather in the area.
In 2010, Environment Texas and the Sierra Club sued ExxonMobil, alleging violations of state and federal emissions regulations at the Baytown complex. The case is pending.