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.

In April 2000, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Gilmore's decision to dismiss the environmental lawsuit. The conservative court found that the administrative action by the TNRCC did not preclude Texans United from seeking relief and penalties.

Abraham felt duly vindicated, and dug in for a courtroom fight.

"We were very, very pleased," he says. "It showed what real citizen power is all about."

Ricky Hough wanted to flee after Crown exploded a second time in November.
Deron Neblett
Ricky Hough wanted to flee after Crown exploded a second time in November.

By last year Crown seemed eager to put out the fires threatening investor confidence. In January the company signed a contract with its workers, ending a 59-month lockout. The next month Crown agreed to settle with Texans United and the other plaintiffs. The $1.6 million settlement included the $1.06 million already assessed by the state.

The agreement, approved by Judge Gilmore in November, included the provision that Crown give $100,000 to Harris County Pollution Control to buy new monitoring equipment. Part of that money will go to local residents to use bucketlike devices to keep tabs on Crown and other plants.

Pollution control, which played an active role in negotiations to get Crown to clean up, created a special link on its Web site devoted to Crown's upsets. The move temporarily placed the refinery under an even brighter spotlight. But when the company complained about being singled out, pollution control backed down and removed the information.

Executive Vice President Trembly thinks Crown's record has been distorted. "But rather than try to dwell on that and prove that, I really want to emphasize the progress we've made," he says.

They could have simply burned the liquefied petroleum gas in a flare, and nobody would have been any the wiser or worse off, says spokesman Bruce Hicks. But in their redoubled effort to be "ultraconservative on any environmental question," the Crown people decided to collect the fuel and store it.

Emptying the tank of the LPG, a mixture of butane and propane, on November 23 was a piece of scheduled maintenance. The procedure entailed pumping water into the tank to flush the volatile fuel into a holding vessel. Four contract workers were given the straightforward task of connecting the pump.

The company admits that the connection to the tank "failed" during the pumping, allowing the highly pressurized gas to seep out. The gas found a source of ignition, and the first of the night's three explosions jolted the plant.

"It's a mechanical device, and it failed," Hicks says. "Why it failed will be determined by the OSHA investigation."

However, an internal investigation report obtained by the Houston Press shows that the company knows more about what happened. Based on 20 witness accounts and assorted data, the investigation reached a stark conclusion: The contractors got the pump connections backward. Specifically, they attached the pump's larger suction hose to the tank and the smaller hose to the water source, when it should have been the other way around. The equipment was left unwatched for prolonged stretches of time.

A refinery worker who declined to be named says the reliance on inexperienced contractors endangers everyone in the plant and beyond.

"If there had been experienced people out there, it never would have happened," the worker says.

Less than two weeks after the November disaster, another incident shook Crown, this one lacking the spectacular pyrotechnics, but providing personnel with a good chill nonetheless. A worker opened a valve and accidentally released hydrogen fluoride, a supercorrosive chemical used to make cleaner fuel. It's the same stuff that sent more than 1,000 people to the hospital and forced the evacuation of several thousand more after a chemical tank ruptured in Texas City in 1987.

"It's not a nice chemical to have around," says Maria Morandi, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center. "It dissolves glass. It's that corrosive."

Six workers were taken to the hospital "as a precaution," according to Trembly. They were released the same day.

No longer a harbinger of prosperity or a leading voice in civic affairs, Crown is starting to make some Pasadena officials nervous.

"I have a genuine concern about it," says Mayor Manlove. "We have other facilities here that deal with chemicals every bit as volatile that aren't having these incidents."

The first-term mayor, an adman by trade, worries that repeat industrial accidents tarnish the city's reputation. Fond of pointing out that there is a lot more to Pasadena than refineries, Manlove chafes against the perception that the city of more than 125,000 people is an industrial wasteland.

"I look at things from a marketing perspective, and I see how Pasadena gets portrayed repeatedly," he says with evident frustration.

Crown still has boosters in the town, reflecting its long ties to the area and substantial impact on the economy. The refinery has roughly 280 salaried and hourly employees and 50 contract workers. In 2001, Crown paid nearly $165,000 in taxes and fees to the city.

"Pasadena, as you know it now, is here because of those chemical plants," says Bill McCoy, president of the chamber of commerce. "[T]hose companies can close, and they can go overseas."

Like McCoy, Crown's Trembly employs a which-came-first logic to silence critics.

"We've been here since 1917," he says. "So we've been here before the other refineries were here. We've been here before a lot of the neighbors you're talking about were here…To the extent that they elected to be neighbors when they came here, you can be sure that since they came here our emissions have gotten better."

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