Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Government responds to Falcon Refinery Superfund oil spill

Waterfowl covered in
toxic crude perish,
oil cleanup continues

A crested cormorant, two coots and a northern shoveler perished over the weekend after they were found immersed in toxic crude oil at the Falcon Refinery Superfund site in Aransas Pass on Feb. 11.

Despite intensive efforts by wildlife management groups at the Animal Rehabilitation Keep on Mustang Island, four birds died on Sunday, Feb. 16, Valentine's Day.

A fifth bird, a black-crowned night heron, also was found at the Falcon Refinery oil spill site last week and was taken in at the ARK for treatment, but it also has died from a disease unrelated to the toxic crude.

Heavy rainfall and a strong wind from the north aided efforts by state agencies and private contractors to clean up an estimated 1 million gallons of crude oil that gushed through a crack in a storage tank last week.

Officials from the Texas General Land Office, the Texas Railroad Commission, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency were on site in Aransas Pass to oversee the cleanup effort by a GLO response team and a private contractor.

The Falcon Refinery was designated as a toxic Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2002, and it was previously reported in the Aransas Pass Progress and the Ingleside Index that the site was due for cleanup by 2010.
The latest oil spill occurred during a crude oil transfer operation by a company that is leasing three storage tanks on the site.

“Right now the rain is helping with our response effort, flushing oil that got into a freshwater marsh back into a freshwater pond where we have a collection effort set up,” said Jimmy Martinez, senior response officer for the Corpus Christi region of the General Land Office.

Martinez said that employees of Superior Crude Gathering Co. of Corpus Christi were pumping oil into a storage tank about 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9, when the crude leaked into a secondary containment area (berm).

“The General Land Office was not notified until about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10. We mobilized our team and brought our command post out here at 8:30 a.m. At that time we asked TCEQ to conduct air monitoring for us, and in a couple of hours we had the all clear to send in our first responders to make an assessment,” Martinez said.

“Once we received the all clear we went over to the Superfund site. There is a 55,000-barrel tank that was holding 52,000 barrels of crude oil, and there was a rupture at the base of it,” Martinez explained.

“Oil was gushing out pretty significantly and was going into a secondary containment area, a dike berm,” he said.

The oil had leaked out of Tank No. 13; Superior employees attempted to pump oil into Tank No. 15 and managed to transfer 28,000 barrels into it.

“During that operation we observed another tank failure, this time in Tank No. 15. Now we’re dealing with two failures,” Martinez said Thursday afternoon.

“We also found three different breaches of those secondary containments, and oil was flowing into the duck pond and freshwater marshes,” he said.

“Once we observed the oil coming out of Tank 15, the company pumped water into it to raise the level of oil above the rupture, and we’ve been able to maintain that level throughout the night so no more oil was coming out of there,” Martinez explained.

“A barge arrived here this morning, and we began to load up the barge with 28,000 barrels of the oil that was in Tank No. 15. That operation started about an hour ago,” Martinez said around noon Thursday.

“We simultaneously had vacuum trucks on the scene to suck oil out of the secondary containment, and we had an overnight operation where we actually recovered approximately 2,000 barrels of oil in the secondary of Tank No. 13. We recovered 2,500 barrels of oil overnight, which brings us up to 20,000 barrels of oil,” Martinez continued.

Matt McCauley, senior response officer for the GLO, said he monitored the Falcon oil spill site over the weekend.

“As of yesterday (Monday), approximately four barrels of oil remained outside the containment area, in the freshwater lake and in a ditch,” McCauley said.

On the inside of the containment area, there are approximately 1,000 barrels left, and we’re hitting hot spots of pooled oil,” he said.

“Our operations are scaling down out there, and we haven’t solidified the amount of oil spilled and the amount recovered. We’re still working with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Railroad Commission and Texas Parks & Wildlife.

Everybody is still heavily involved in the operation,” McCauley said.

Intensive care for the four birds last week involved a non-profit organization from Houston and personnel at the Animal Rehabilitation Keep.

The care and cleanup of oiled birds is a delicate process, and on this occasion did not turn out well for the birds, who were discovered dead on Sunday.

“Everything worked the way it was supposed to, but unfortunately when birds are oiled, it is a give and take situation when the birds ingest the oil. Sometimes with oil spills that’s the way it goes,” said Brent Koza of the General Land Office’s Oil Spill Prevention and Response office in Corpus Christi.

Koza had delivered a specially equipped travel trailer to house the birds in a warm environment while they underwent treatment.

A special cleaning tank apparatus donated to the GLO by the Citgo energy company was put into use for the first time last week at the ARK.

“The machine worked beautifully, the way it was designed to. Personally and professionally, I was disappointed with the way the birds died, but I was satisfied with the way the machinery worked,” Koza said.

Martinez said the oil spill site at the Falcon Refinery will end an emergency phase “when the oil is removed from the water itself, that is our primary concern.”

He said that by the end of Wednesday, Feb. 17, the GLO “will back off and the railroad commission will take control of longer term remediation.”

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