TEXAS CITY — The city’s top emergency management official said had he known that BP was releasing thousands of pounds of chemicals into the air during a 40-day period in 2010, he would have done whatever he could to force the company to stop.
It is a move that the mayor, an ardent defender of BP, said he would have supported.
Bruce Clawson, the city’s emergency management coordinator and director of homeland security, said he was kept in the dark about what resulted in more than 500,000 pounds of toxins released in April and May three years ago. Had he known, Clawson said he would have met with BP officials privately and told them, “You cannot do it that way.”
If they had refused, Clawson said he would have gone public — including informing the media.
Court and city records and notes from an April 2010 Daily News inquiry to Clawson about unusual flaring at the refinery show that city officials were kept in the dark.
Despite repeated inquires from city authorities, BP officials never fully disclosed what was going on until well after the 40-day emissions event.
BP: No public risk
BP maintains that no one was harmed by the event.
BP officials said the materials released were dispersed in such a way that there’s no way anyone could have gotten sick. At no time, BP officials said, did they believe anyone’s health was at risk.
“The only reason to inform the public is strictly for public health reasons,” Clawson said. “Because they waited, there’s no way, in my estimation, we really know what health (affects) there were as a result of that event.”
Clawson stopped short of saying he thinks anyone can definitely say the emissions event made them ill or whether he thought the 45,000-plus people suing BP had a real claim.
Still, he said he was “really hot” at BP for not being forthcoming. He said he wasn’t informed of the event until June 5, the same day BP was making a full report to state environmental regulators.
That is the same day The Daily News uncovered proof of the event, just before BP made its report to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“I told BP then and repeated it later — they should have said something before,” Clawson said.
Mayor Matt Doyle said he supports his emergency management coordinator’s statements.
“On those things, I defer to Bruce because that is his area of expertise,” Doyle said. “If Bruce thought there was reason to warn the public, I would have supported whatever he wanted to do.”
Asked if he thinks BP put residents of his city at risk, Doyle declined to comment.
“I don’t want to say something that may influence the ongoing litigation,” Doyle said during the first week of the trial.
That statement was in contrast to previous comments from the mayor when lawsuits were filed. He often chastised those who sued — as well as the attorneys who represented them — saying it sent the wrong message and that the lawsuits mistreated “neighbors.”
Company officials admit now they could have done a better job of informing city officials and the public what was happening. That doesn’t mean the company believes its lack of communication is proof anyone got sick, company officials said.
Court records show that there were occasions when BP could have revealed what was going on when a unit failed, which led to extra flaring. BP, instead, told city officials all was well and nothing unusual was taking place.
In some cases, county health and city fire and police officials relied on an unwritten “good-intent” policy.
Under that policy, local petrochemical facilities agree to report all emissions events, fires and releases — no matter how minor — to the city through its police dispatchers.
Such calls are logged.
BP informed the city on April 6 of extraordinary flare activity when the 100J unit abruptly shut down, forcing extra flaring.
Records show city fire crews responded with a fire truck at the refinery’s main gate.
It was soon sent back to the firehouse when BP officials declared an all clear. Such events usually are resolved within 24 hours and no further reporting required.
But there are no records showing that BP officials ever followed up despite an internal discussion about continuing to operate the unit and increase flaring.
During the next 40 days, several odor complaints were received by the city and county health officials. Many of those were isolated to specific events, including a leak at Enterprise Transportation and another incident in the Port of Texas City at facilities operated by Valero.
On April 26, there were three such reports. One was determined to be because of an incident at Valero and another a natural gas leak from a stove, according to records.
But the third remained undetermined, according to county health and state environmental records.
An industrial emissions event was reported, but that was 15 hours after residents complained about the odor. That report, provided to The Daily News by the county health district, notes that there were no reports of emissions events that could be tied to the odor complaint.
There’s no indication that BP officials were ever contacted directly, according to the report.
The next day, after several calls complaining of extra flaring activity at BP, The Daily News contacted Clawson about any possible incident.
The newspaper’s notes from that inquiry indicate Clawson contacted BP officials and was told there was a “unit restart,” but that there was no unusual activity.
Because it was not considered an incident, Clawson said he didn’t log or note the event. Unit restarts that require extra flaring are not unusual and don’t usually last more than a day or two.
Clawson said even then, BP officials did not reveal the ongoing emissions event, which was at the time still a couple of weeks away from ending.
Clawson said he had several talks with BP officials during the flaring about unrelated events, but not once did company officials reveal the extent of the flaring.
Clawson said he recalls other calls to him during that time from people complaining of unusual odors, but he never got a confirmation from any of the petrochemical facilities — including BP — that there was an ongoing event. He said because there were no major complaints or readily identified health affects, he never logged or kept track of those reports.
Health district records show that on May 12, there was a complaint from a resident in the 2000 block of Texas Avenue, who said an odor made her family sick. Again, reports show that no one had reported an ongoing emissions event.
The odor complaint was filed away when the inspector arrived on scene and couldn’t detect an odor.