Reporting San Antonio

Questions for San Antonio’s Calumet Refinery

calumet sara
Images from the emergency response to Calumet’s May jet fuel spill from a San Antonio River Authority briefing.

Ugly, dirty history of spills at San Antonio Refinery seem far from over.

Greg Harman

Consider this my spring cleaning, late as it is. The subject: the mangle of flares and flanges known as the Calumet (or NuStar, or AGE) refinery in South SA.

While some media are keeping up on the monthly spills out of Calumet, I’m still waiting to read about how the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is pursuing enforcement action against the company (because, um, they are) for its “failing to take response actions” or notify the TCEQ in a timely manner of an April spill that leaked jet fuel into the San Antonio River.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Some here may remember that back in 2010 the then AGE refinery nearly blew up. Had a fiery tanker-truck blaze spread to nearby storage tanks of jet fuel there would have been a fireball half a mile wide that easily could have torched (or at least scorched) area homes, apartments, the state mental hospital, and a center for infectious disease study (here’s my Google Earth tour).

AGE already had a nasty history of spills and groundwater contamination under its belt, but this disaster narrowly averted finally capsized the company, which filed for bankruptcy and was soon sold to NuStar Energy in 2011. NuStar sunk between $30 million and $40 million into rehabbing the plant, according to the Express-News, and flipped it just over a year later, selling to Calumet Speciality Products for $115 million.

I can’t say the leadership from either NuStar or Calumet has been that much better, with runaway fugitive emissions exceeding by several times their state air permit, struggles with plant “upsets,” a power outage, fire, and a string of spills that reached the San Antonio River (all because they neglected one simple repair).

In an attempt to catalogue the facility’s troubles, Scott Huddleston at the Express-News quoted a San Antonio River Authority Trustee saying recently: “It seems to me that that property, that refinery is plagued.”

But if there’s any plague at work, it’s a plague of bad management exacerbated by the failure of regulators and local officials to take a stand for the public’s safety and tighten the screws on the company. A couple of recent open-records requests I filed with the TCEQ and SARA shows local officials and regulators are starting to ask themselves what pressure they can exert to get a grip on Calumet (and even asking themselves if the public is noticing their failures to do anything substantive before now).

And here’s where I hope some industrious conscientious public defender will start making some inquiries.

Let’s start with the company’s fugitive air emissions, as documented by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality a year ago:

The TCEQ investigation was prompted by an odor complaint by a jogger who runs along the river near the refinery. The complaint filed with the TCEQ reads: “Get dizzy during the day and night when come by the refinery. Please check air quality in the area. Espada Park is right near the refinery when I run I feel dizzy running near the refinery. You can hear the flame roar from ½ mile radius.”

According to the site assessment, TCEQ investigators who followed up on this complaint were met by plant security when they started using an infrared camera to take these images of hydrocarbons being emitted invisibly into the daytime air. The guard said they needed permission from the company to film, to which they replied: 1) Get bent, as the TCEQ is “empowered by law to enter in or upon any public or private property in the state of Texas in order to make inspections, investigations, and surveys…” and 2) What are these apparently unauthorized emissions presently occurring?

In this case, because the plant was having problems with its equipment these recorded emissions were considered “authorized” (a very Texas-sized loophole industry enjoys here). The event, or “upset,” blamed on a leaky process valve that resulted in flaring excess fuel gas, was further considered by the company to be “non-reportable.”

However, the investigator noted: “It is recommended that an in-depth investigation be conducted at Calumet to determined if compliance with all air permits is attained. All upsets and non-reportable incidents occurring at the facility should be fully investigated.”

In a letter to Calumet’s environmental manager in July, 2013, the regional TCEQ’s air section manager wrote, “there appears to be a high potential for nuisance conditions due to the close proximity of nearby receptors [that would be regulatory parlance for the biological organisms known as human beings]. Therefore, we are encouraging you to ensure that adequate control measures are utilized during all activities at the site.”

Are the pipes still gassing this way? I don’t know. A question for Calumet, the TCEQ, and local media outlets.

One thing we know is that the facility has gotten away with more than this on the air-pollution front.

Between 2008 and 2012, refinery officials underestimated the maximum amount of such “fugitive” emissions released from the facility under the terms of their air permit. It turns out they were releasing not the 33.7 tons per year they were allowed but 98.2 tons per year, according to NuStar’s self-reporting to the TCEQ. Rather than rein in the company, the TCEQ worked with NuStar to raise their allowable fugitive emissions under an amended air permit for pollutants like volatile organic compounds that contribute to the lung-damaging ground-level ozone San Antonio is working so hard to stay in compliance with.

While some creative accounting (google “Texas Permit by Rule”) allows the company and TCEQ to suggest the air emissions were reduced with the new #6113 Air Permit, the actual poundage went up across the board.

Under the 2012 amendment, VOCs went up from 173 tons per year allowable to 196.4 tpy; NOX went up from 62.2 tons per year to 65.7 tpy; and particulates (or soot) and super-fine particulates (PM10) — which passes through lung tissue into the blood — both rose from 13 tpy to 13.6 tpy.

A curious reporter might ask nearby residents — or maybe the Alamo Area Council of Governments or decamping Mayor Julián Castro — how they feel about that.


The regulatory history here is so rich (and well documented), the outcomes so potentially lethal, that there really ought to be a team of reporters (or a resident truth brigade) running  a weeks-long investigation.

Almost as soon as NuStar bought the facility, they started claiming immunity. A letter in February, 2012, from NuStar’s Gerald Stauffer notified the TCEQ that an environmental audit of facility discovered “several violations.”

nustar logo

“Accordingly,” he continued, “NuStar hereby invokes the immunity from civil and administrative penalties provided by Section 10 of the Audit Act.”

A manager from TCEQ’s enforcement division wrote back two months later: “Immunity under the Audit Act in contingent upon completion of appropriate corrective actions within a reasonable amount of time. The Audit Act has defined a reasonable amount of time to be six months. … The TCEQ will accept additional voluntary disclosures until May 1, 2012.”

In other words, “Get your shit together and then we’ll talk.”

The list of violations discovered by NuStar and reported to the TCEQ is a long one, betraying, at minimum, AGE’s pathetic excuse for record-keeping. There are dozen cases showing NuStar could not locate records and permits from the refinery it wanted so dearly, including records of wastes generated on site and where they had been shipped or proof anyone had been inspecting the plant equipment or complied with mandated training in handling of solid wastes. One violation listed by the TCEQ states: “NuStar has determined that the refinery may have erroneously certified that the facility was in compliance [with] the Annual Comprehensive Site Evaluation submitted in March 2011.”

Roughly six months after its exchange with the TCEQ over immunity issues NuStar informed the TCEQ they had signed an “asset purchase agreement” with Calumet Specialty Products Partners. L.P.

Of course, NuStar’s watch wasn’t without blemish:

November, 2011: Workers forced open a valve that started spraying jet fuel — which then unhelpfully caught fire. Runoff from the fire and fire department response, including fire foam, flushed into the San Antonio River smelling of “fire retardant chemicals and hydrocarbons,” according to the TCEQ.  Into the air went an estimated release of 1,213 pounds of VOCs, including 521 pounds of “uncombusted VOCs,” 352 pounds carbon monoxide, and 4.5 pounds of “uncombusted benzene,” according to TCEQ reports. A bad day for breathing on the South Side. While a Notice of Violation was issued in February of 2012, NuStar resolved it “by indicating training will take place in order to prevent a recurrence.” (A company letter to the TCEQ lists much lower emission amounts, including 52 pounds of VOCs, for instance. It’s a discrepancy to be sorted out.)

March, 20, 2012: Heavy lightning strikes knock out power to the NuStar refinery, resulting in heavy flaring for nearly 21 hours. It is unclear how much of the product is effectively combusted, but out the flares shot 2,554 pounds of propane, 2,383 pounds of butane, 844 pounds of pentanes, 304 pounds of carbon monoxide, and 133 pounds of nitrogen oxides.

May 6, 2012: Despite having no permit to discharge stormwater from the plant, 1,800 gallons of “stormwater mixed with oil” was pumped into a “railroad ditch” and flushed into the San Antonio River during a rainfall event.


A vacuum truck being used to remove spilled fuel from the San Antonio River earlier this year.
A vacuum truck being used to remove spilled fuel from the San Antonio River earlier this year.

The spills continued after Calumet closed on the facility in January, 2013.

January 23, 2013: Seventy-five gallons of fuel is spilled at the loading rack over a transport tanker due to a malfunctioning overfill device on the tanker (operated by Houston-based Suncoast Resources). Calumet’s report to the TCEQ came two days later.

September 10, 2013:  Overfilled Tank 427 with jet fuel, spilling a reported 7,560 gallons onsite requiring multiple vacuum trucks and a berm. It is possible that a rainstorm spread the fuels beyond the berm. A month later, Calumet writes the TCEQ to say the spill was actually 18,648 gallons and can they have three more months to clean it up. Six months later it’s still not cleaned up. The matter has been referred to the TCEQ’s Remediation Division for further evaluation.

March 4, 2014: Of a spill of 8,736 gallons, 420 gallons of jet fuel are estimated to have entered a “refinery storm water ditch,” according to Calumet Environmental Supervisor Michael W. Garrett’s letter to the TCEQ. He adds: “There is a valve on the storm water ditch as it exits the property at Presa Street, but the valve did not have a perfect seal and a sheen was subsequently discovered at the discharge point at the San Antonio River.” On April 10, an email to TCEQ staff discloses that “dead water fowl reportedly contaminated with jet fuel have been discovered in the vicinity of the spill area.” Two birds are recovered. Texas Parks & Wildlife’s “spills and kills” team is called in.

April 11, 2014: Just before midnight a worker walked away from a refilling operation “to do something else” and 1,260 gallons washed over the railcar into the drainage ditch, where it would have stayed. “However, it came to be known that the onsite channel had leaked through a faulty gate valve and an unknown amount of fuel entered into the river.” The malfunctioning valve blamed for the previous month’s failure is blamed again. A Notice of Enforcement is issued by the TCEQ.

May 20, 2014: An onsite spill is reported by the Express-News. Details–including the amount of product spilled–are scant.


calumet letter

I have not surveyed the San Antonio City Council or outgoing mayor about the refinery’s legacy and ongoing miserableness. Nor have I called the company. According to documents I received from the river authority, no one from the company in San Antonio will speak to the media anyway. It’s all being shuttled up to Indianapolis, supposedly. But the company is concerned about its reputation, apparently. They have put together an advisory group, as attested to in this letter from the refinery manager to SARA’s Erin Newberry (click to enlarge).

A recent “table top” exercise to run through some spill scenarios with Calumet and representatives from SAFD, SAPD, Metro Health, and Hazmat, among others, left an impression on SARA spokesperson Steven Schauer. In an email to the organizations’ executive team secured by open-records request, Schauer wrote that “before we could really get into these two scenarios, the meeting quickly digressed into a general discussion about Calumet’s communications procedures and the expectations of the public entities represented at the meeting.”

He continued: “It became evident rather quickly that Calumet’s internal and external notification procedures need vast improvement.”

Calumet’s team asserted at the meeting, according to Schauer’s email, that they don’t have to report spills less than 210 gallons. Local responders read the law as saying anything over 25 gallons. Has this little disagreement been cleared up?

“It was made clear by all local public entities (particularly by SAFD, Hazmat and SARA) that the local community can require notifications that exceed the TCEQ standards, and that was biggest takeaway of the morning,” Schauer wrote.

And a SARA board briefing on the matter, also secured by open-records request, suggests that squirrelly valve is going to be fixed by the end of June, along with the following improvements:

  • Retrain operators
  • Repair/replace outfall isolation valve
  • Repair containment at railcar loading rack
  • Repair drainage system at railcar loading rack
  • Install temporary weir in drainage canal in refinery
  • Automated loaded system with safety shutdowns
  • Calumet is proposing additional improvements in 2015/16.
  • River Authority will continue working with and monitoring the refinery.

Residents should probably be asking themselves if that is enough for them. Hopefully media reps will ask themselves a question along those lines about their aggressiveness on this story. Kicking ourselves after another explosion won’t help anyone. And on this story, exposing political lethargy and industry sleight of hand could actually save some lives.


So, yeah, back to teeing up the breaking-news element. A TCEQ Investigation Report dating to mid-May shows the agency is pursuing enforcement action against Calumet on a number of counts related to the April 11 spill, including the failure to notify the TCEQ about the event in a timely way (the midnight spill was called in to SARA by a pedestrian the morning after it occurred). “Despite San Antonio Refinery being equipped with ready and available communications services (ie. telephones, etc.) … notification was not made until 1120 hours on April 12, 2014.”

The second alleged violation has to do with Calumet’s response to the spill. “At the time of the spill, facility personnel did not assess for offsite impacts even though [they were] aware from prior spill incidents at the facility that the gate valve … would not contain the full release onsite.”

Lastly, the TCEQ alleges Calumet workers had “caused, suffered, allowed, and/or permitted the collection, handling, storage, processing, or disposal of industrial solid waste in such a manner so as to cause the discharge of industrial solid waste into the waters of the state without obtaining specific authorization for such a discharge from the Commission.”

It’s not the land- and water-poisoning pollution that’s the problem according to this count, it’s poisoning without permission. The inanity of this regulatory arrangement should be perplexing all of us day after day until it’s resolved.