Kelley, crowd turn Valero meeting into shouting match

Marilyn Tennissen Aug. 7, 2007, 9:58am

Hilton Kelley, environmental activist, shouts at Valero Refinery officials at a public forum.

PORT ARTHUR -- Earlier this year, self-appointed environmental activist Hilton Kelley tried to throw a kink in Motiva Enterprises' plans for a $5 billion expansion of its Port Arthur refinery.

This summer, Kelley and his group the Community In-power and Development Association (CIDA) took on the U.S. Army and tried to stop the incineration of VX nerve gas wastewater at a Port Arthur facility – a project valued at more than $40 million for the Southeast Texas economy.

Now, Kelley has rallied residents of a Port Arthur housing complex to challenge the Valero refinery over what officials say was a non-toxic release of an odorous gas on July 28.

On Aug. 6, what was scheduled to be a friendly forum between Valero and members of the community quickly dissolved into a waste of time after Kelley turned the meeting into a shouting match.

Officials from the Valero Refinery in Port Arthur and the company headquarters in San Antonio held a town hall meeting at the Port Arthur Memorial 9th Grade Center on Aug. 6. The meeting was scheduled to address public concerns about a July 28 incident at the refinery, that nearby residents say released a toxic gas into the area.

About 40 residents of the Carver Terrace Apartments, a Port Arthur Housing Authority complex, were taken to area hospitals two weeks ago, complaining of nausea, breathing problems and skin irritation.

Jim Gillingham, general manager of the Port Arthur facility, and Morris Carter, director of health and safety, took the podium Monday in the school auditorium, packed with around 400 concerned citizens, to clarify the incident that caused a release of odorous hydrogen sulfide.

"First, I want to offer my sincerest apologies for the events on July 28," Gillingham said. "We work hard not to impact the community. Being community friendly is one of Valero's core values."

The Valero officials explained that on Saturday, July 28, the refinery's coke complex was off line at the same time the Naptha pre-treatment section was shut down. Because the system was not equipped to deal with both units down, some hydrogen back-flowed into processing tanks and hydrogen sulfide gas escaped.

While Carter was explaining the chain of events and the refinery's response, Kelley rose to his feet in the audience and began shouting at Valero officials. He then stomped to the stage and took the microphone from Carter.

"You are talking about a bunch of technical jargon as to what goes on behind the fence line," Kelley said. "These people are here to find out what they can do about their medical conditions. All this fluff is irrelevant."

Hydrogen sulfide, H2S, is a flammable, colorless gas with a characteristic odor of rotten eggs. It occurs naturally in crude petroleum and can also be produced from industrial activities.

Exposure to low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide may cause irritation to the eyes, nose or throat. It may also cause difficulty in breathing for some asthmatics.

At high concentrations, greater than 500 parts per million, hydrogen sulfide can cause loss of consciousness and sometimes death.

Monday Valero spokesman Bill Day said amounts detected on July 28 by local monitoring equipment were not large enough to cause serious injury.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has not made a final determination as to the amount of hydrogen sulfate that was released into the air on July 28.

That day, a strong H2S odor was reported in the area, and Port Arthur emergency personnel notified Carver Terrace residents to remain indoors. Reportedly 39 residents were then transported to area hospitals complaining of medical problems.

Kelley has held meetings with Carver Terrace residents, urging them not to accept settlements from the refinery.

None of the employees of Valero required or requested medical treatment.

Valero established a community hotline, 1-800-678-9355, so that residents could call and discuss their concerns or medical problems they say they are having.

At Monday's forum, Kelley's outburst was greeted with cheers from the audience members, who also began shouting at the Valero officials.

Port Arthur Mayor Deloris Prince and Councilman Michael Sinegal tried to calm what was quickly becoming an angry mob, with some residents storming out of the auditorium.

"This is getting us nowhere," Sinegal said. "We are not going to solve anything going back and forth like this."

"Valero said it is working on the problems, so we have to let them," Prince said.

Former Lincoln High School Coach James Gamble, still an authority figure among Port Arthur's West Side residents, took the mic and said calmly to officials that residents just want to know immediately when something occurs at one of the refineries that have been their neighbors for more than 100 years.

Gamble said a siren or shelter-in-place alarm would let residents know what was happening and what to do.

When Motiva Enterprises began plans to construct a new refinery inside the existing Port Arthur facility, the first refinery to be built from the ground up in the United States in more than 30 years, Kelley challenged the project in court to stop the permitting process. Motiva reached a settlement that granted CIDA $2 million for a community health and education center.

More recently, CIDA was behind the efforts to stop the incineration of VX nerve gas wastewater at the Veolia Port Arthur facility. A lawsuit that was joined by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups resulted in a temporary halt in the transportation of the wastewater. A ruling by a federal judge in Indiana, where the shipments originate, will have the transportation and operation resuming this week.

The TCEQ report on the Valero incident is due to be released on Aug. 14.

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