The Fire Next Time?

Last September 11, a pair of computers in Exxon's Baytown refinery stopped talking to each other for 15 seconds. That brief lapse in communication caused more than 66,000 gallons of naphtha, a highly volatile petroleum distillate, to spew from several damaged pipe connections and form a giant vapor cloud.

A giant vapor cloud of naphtha floating around an oil refinery is not something to take lightly. The material is so explosive that sparks from the distributor of a passing car can set it off -- to say nothing of the open flames that are as common as dirt at a refinery. Employees on the scene acted quickly, shutting down various pipes and bypassing others. The cloud dissipated. It was all over in about 15 minutes.

But for the employees at work in the refinery's Light Oil Treaters unit that day, those 15 minutes were nearly their last. During the naphtha release, according to Exxon's internal report on the incident, several workers tried to drive through the danger zone, despite the frantic efforts of two employees to stop them.

In addition, according to the report, it took "a long time" for the plant's alarm system to start functioning, and a worker almost drove a truck through the naphtha on a road that wasn't wired into the alarm system at all. Luckily, an alert co-worker waved him to a stop.

Meanwhile, an indoor outpost near the leak had filled with vapors. A contract employee entered the building -- in theory, a "safe haven" -- and pulled out a pack of smokes. "Fortunately," the report states matter-of-factly, "an Exxon oil mist technician in the area noticed the contractor and prevented him from lighting his cigarette."

Had the naphtha found an ignition source, says one worker who was at the scene and remembers the incident vividly, the explosion could have leveled the unit and ruptured several nearby acid gas lines containing hydrogen sulfide, which can kill in even small doses. "We would have had a fairly major catastrophe," he says.

A similar leak occurred on October 23, 1989, at the Phillips 66 chemical complex just across the Ship Channel in Pasadena. A contractor doing routine maintenance inadvertently switched a couple of air hoses, opening a valve that, in turn, released a huge cloud of explosive gases. In that incident, the workers weren't so lucky: 90 seconds after the release, a sizable chunk of the plant blew up, killing 23 and injuring more than 130.

That a few strokes of good fortune saved Exxon's refinery workers from a similar fate is enough to shake even the hardest hat in the plant. But the naphtha release has more disturbing implications. The computer communications glitch that led to the release had occurred several times in previous months but hadn't been fixed. During the incident, safety rules were bent or violated. The piping that failed did not meet Exxon's own standards.

Oil refineries and chemical plants are inherently dangerous places to work. Hundreds of miles of pipe carry various toxic and explosive liquids and gases under intense heat and pressure, powered by banks of pumps and fired in huge reactors. Valves fail. Pumps break. Pipes corrode. Shit happens.

To minimize the risk, petrochemical plants are supposed to have an exhaustive safety infrastructure. Employees must be rigorously trained. Backup equipment is ready when something fails. Procedures have checks and balances. Equipment gets regular maintenance, and inspectors catch potential problems before they erupt. Incidents are investigated and action taken to avoid repeats.

But at the Exxon refinery and adjacent chemical plant, part of the company's sprawling Baytown complex that dominates the working-class city 30 miles east of Houston, the safety net is full of holes. Though the company says the plants are among the safest in the business, a Houston Press investigation has revealed a grimmer picture: routine maintenance deferred until equipment breaks, serious breaches of safety rules to cut corners, the use of unqualified workers to do sensitive and dangerous tasks, shoddy or partial repairs.

In fact, as the company has steadily slashed its work force and maintenance budget the past decade, incidents such as the October naphtha release are becoming almost routine. On November 15, 1995, a pipe elbow in the Lube Hydrofining Unit-1 burst, sending a wall of orange flame 90 feet into the air and destroying part of a nearby building. On January 8, a pipe that was seven years overdue for replacement failed and leaked propane into the atmosphere. Ten days later, a propylene line in the chemical plant blew up after Exxon workers misunderstood a crew of Spanish-speaking contractors and pressurized it before repairs had been completed.

And over a three-day period last month, four potentially serious incidents occurred. On March 6, a sewer explosion in the refinery's alkylation plant sent manhole covers flying. On March 7, a one-inch pipe under 600 pounds of pressure in the chemical plant blew, forcing another evacuation to a "safe haven" and sending a cloud of propylene wafting over the Wooster community, a low-income neighborhood tucked between Exxon and the Houston Ship Channel. That same day, an electrical fire occurred in a refinery building where hazardous materials are stored. The following day brought the release of highly toxic toluene in the chemical plant after contractors used a protective plastic valve cover as a gasket.

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Bob Burtman