Under The Volcano

Crown Central Petroleum spews, sputters and flares up. Neighbors of the plant view it uneasily, never quite sure when it's going to blow.

Tamathia Hough and son Ricky endured another half-hour of waiting before a friend arrived and took them to Houston for the night. Crown would have one more explosion before the volatile fuel feeding the blaze was spent around 3 a.m. One person, a Crown emergency worker, received minor burns, according to company officials.

Randy Trembly, the Crown executive vice president who heads the refinery, says that the irony of the event is that it happened during a maintenance procedure intended to minimize emissions. Just that day Crown had notified the county that it was looking for the cause of a smoking flare. The expected impact of that upkeep, according to the report, was "none."

"It's so heartbreaking," Trembly says. "We were trying to be environmentally proactive."

Crown executive Randy Trembly finds the refinery's latest troubles "heartbreaking."
Deron Neblett
Crown executive Randy Trembly finds the refinery's latest troubles "heartbreaking."
Crown executive Randy Trembly finds the refinery's latest troubles "heartbreaking."
Deron Neblett
Crown executive Randy Trembly finds the refinery's latest troubles "heartbreaking."

It would be several weeks before an investigation would disclose the blunders that caused Crown's latest disaster.

Crown Oil & Refining Company opened shop along the Houston Ship Channel at a time when oil was fast becoming the region's defining industry. The year was 1920, and Pasadena was a farming community dominated by a handful of founding families. The new plant sat amid the vast fields of strawberries that had been the community's lifeblood up till then.

The company played a dominant role in the community from the beginning. Crown officials formed a crucial voting bloc during Pasadena's successful bid to incorporate in 1928. During the Great Depression, Crown and six other companies, including Phillips Petroleum, virtually kept the school district afloat. By attracting workers to the area, these businesses spawned population growth and created real estate markets.

"We appreciated and welcomed all the development, and of course it helped all of Houston," says 79-year-old Clyde Pomeroy, a retired oilman whose family came to Pasadena in the early 1900s and prospered drilling water wells. As a young man, Pomeroy worked at Crown, manufacturing high-octane fuel for World War II aircraft.

Today Crown is an image of boilers, reactors, towers and tall, steaming stacks along a dreary stretch of Red Bluff Road. The facility covers 174 acres amid some of the most heavily industrialized real estate in the world.

Refining crude into fuels like gas, diesel and heating oil is a messy undertaking, even if Crown's production capacity -- approximately 100,000 barrels a day -- is modest compared to giants like Exxon Mobil's Baytown complex, with its half-million-barrel output. Crude contains a variety of sulfuric materials that must be removed. How to deal with the reeking, unhealthy by-products has long been a vexing question for the industry.

Some 18 toxic substances are used or generated in Crown's round-the-clock refining processes, including hydrogen fluoride, a chemical corrosive enough to dissolve glass. Tons of emissions, some damaging to health in high enough quantities, get released into the air.

Long before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, a Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission or a Harris County Pollution Control, there was the conscience of a refinery's operators to decide how much of what got dumped when and where. Such choices pitted the interest in keeping the peace with the neighbors against the imperatives of a company's bottom line.

Bob Cunningham, senior vice president of Dallas-based energy consultants Turner, Mason & Co., was the engineer in charge of a Mississippi refinery in the 1960s. He says his crews used to drop fish into the canals flowing from the plant to make sure they could survive. If the fish went belly up, they knew something was "awry" and made adjustments to their operations.

"We were committed to being a good corporate citizen and having the plant be an asset to the community," says the 66-year-old Rice graduate.

Longtime Pasadena dwellers like Pomeroy recall plenty of fierce smells from the paper mills and petrochemical plants. But that was the price of development, he says, even if it ultimately cost the Houston area the quality of its air.

"There was never any resentment," he says. "We never complained."

Like a generation of smokers that blithely puffed away before learning the downside of the habit, people in high-pollution areas gradually came to learn that inhaling sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other industrial emissions on a regular basis wasn't all that healthy. The change in attitude was not sudden, says Cunningham, but rather evolved out of the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the landmark clean air and water legislation was passed, and agencies like the EPA came into being.

As regulations evolved, plants found themselves being scrutinized in ways that were unimaginable in the freewheeling days of yore. There were inspections and tedious reports. Companies had to maintain mountains of monitoring data. Sometimes they were forced to produce cleaner fuels and to invest in efficient technology. An ornery old-timer like Crown flailed like a captive crocodile under the regimen. More often than not, it found ways to slip through holes in the regulatory net.

"Recurring emissions and recurring plant malfunctions clearly indicate the need for adequate backup equipment, better training and a corporate commitment that apparently does not exist," wrote Harris County Pollution Control manager Darhl Ferraro in 1999. "We know of no other refinery with such an egregious history of problems as Crown."

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