Power company blames ‘switch’ for power outage in Texas City


Early records show the amount of emissions released during Friday’s power outage was one of the largest in the region in the past five years.

TEXAS CITY, Texas — Texas City’s top emergency manager credits “God’s providence” with preventing a major explosion at petrochemical plants.

Bruce Clawson, emergency management coordinator, made the comments to the Galveston County Daily News on Monday, three days after the massive Feb. 4 power outage left nearly 20,000 homes and businesses in the dark for four hours.

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Clawson was unavailable for an interview Tuesday. However, in a text message exchange with KHOU 11, he pointed to the skill of workers at petrochemical facilities, who flare chemicals, to reduce pressure and secure these refineries.

“This can create huge opportunities for bad explosions,” said Ed Hirs, KHOU 11 Energy Expert.

Hirs and Clawson said refineries have backup generators, but not enough to run at full power.

“Just like your building has two backup generators to run the elevators and some of the power supplies and to keep the water pumping through the building,” Hirs said. “They don’t have enough production on site to supply the whole plant. It amounts to being too expensive.

Hirs says there are no laws requiring backup generation at these facilities.

Initial reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality show the Valero and Marathon plants emitted more than 132,000 pounds of emissions, including nearly 75,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

“So one event, one night, produced the same amount of sulfur dioxide, four percent of an entire year,” said Jennifer Hadayia, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s webpage on sulfur dioxide, or SO2, “Short-term exposures to SO2 can damage the human respiratory system and make it difficult to breathe. People with asthma, especially children, are sensitive to these effects of SO2.

Laura Lopez, Media and Community Relations Manager at TCEQ, told KHOU 11 in an email: “Estimated emissions may be revised in final notification (due two weeks from the end of the event ) after the entity has fully assessed an incident. Once final notifications are received, the TCEQ will investigate the reported emissions events to determine compliance with applicable rules, permit provisions, notification requirements and of declaration.

Eric Paul, a spokesman for Texas-New Mexico Power, blamed the outage on the failure of a device called a switch at a substation around 6:20 p.m. on Feb. 4.

“We are continuing to investigate what caused it to fail; it had been inspected earlier in the week,” Paul wrote in an email to KHOU 11. “Shortly after this switch failed, a transmission line was de-energized We saw no indications of links to wildlife, cold weather, or customer gear.

KHOU 11 emailed questions to Valero and Marathon Petroleum about backup generation capabilities on Feb. 4 or possible future changes, but had not received a response as of Tuesday evening.

Editor’s Note: The following video was uploaded on February 4 while the power outage was active.

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