Planned anhydrous ammonia unit in Texas City draws attention
SAN LEON, Texas (AP) — Roy Lee Cannon stands on the deck of his shrimp boat docked at Eagle Point Fishing Camp during the golden hour of a summer evening, his whippet-thin, sun-tanned frame slouched against the boat’s fish hold. He looks out on Galveston Bay, his office for the last 44 years.
The Houston Chronicle reports it’s the end of a long work day for Cannon, a shift that began before sunrise. The early-morning hours are harder for Cannon, who has a titanium plate in his arm from an accident and a pig valve in his chest, but this time of day is undoubtedly the most productive. On a good day, Cannon will haul in 600 pounds of shrimp, though his yield steadily has decreased as the bay and ship channel have become a highway of commerce for the oil and chemical industries.
“The ship channel is kind of a strange place because shrimp fall into it, but it’s not the same,” Cannon said. “It’s nice on those days when you can just run out there, throw (the net) over and just do good.”
As the ship channel has been widened to allow for more boat traffic and chemical plants have been constructed, which in turn have discharged millions of pounds of toxic runoff, Cannon has watched over four decades as the Galveston Bay has been transformed from a jewel of recreation and commerce into what one Texas environmental group calls “a potion of pollution.”
So, when Cannon heard an $800 million anhydrous ammonia plant was in the works for the shores of Texas City, he decided that another potential bay polluter should not proceed without protest.
The proposed plant has drawn widespread objections, including navigational, environmental and public health concerns, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public-comment records obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The concerns have produced strange bedfellows, uniting government agencies, the chemical industry and environmentalists in raising serious questions about the facility.
Texas City residents know all too well the risks of an industrial disaster. In April 1947, the French-owned SS Grandcamp was loading ammonium nitrate fertilizer when a fire broke out, triggering a massive explosion that could be heard as far as 150 miles away. This led to a series of fires, including on nearby ships and at the nearby Monsanto Chemical Co. plant; a mushroom cloud that rose 2,000 feet into the air, destroying two small planes that passed overhead; and a 15-foot tidal wave that leveled buildings, leaving hundreds homeless. The disaster caused the deaths of more than 575 people and left another 4,000 people injured.
The proposed plant, which will receive a 10-year tax abatement from Texas City and create between 25 and 50 full-time jobs, includes planned dredging for an offshore dock and pipeline tower; a piping system that will include ammonia lines, potable water, sanitary sewer, electrical, and communication pipelines; and a permit to discharge 2.2 million gallons of utility wastewater and storm water runoff daily into the bay, directly into the vicinity of a shrimp nursery that Cannon and other shrimpers rely on.
“I don’t see how they can say nothing’s going to be affected or there will be little effect on the environmental situation for the oysters, fish, shrimp, etc. because they have no way of knowing that,” Cannon said. “All they can say is, ‘No, no it won’t hurt it.’”
The plant operators, Gulf Coast Ammonia LLC, a partnership between Miami-based Agrifos and Borealis AG, Europe’s second-largest producer of polyethylene and polypropylene, declined to comment about how it would address the myriad of concerns.
Nancy Sims, a public relations executive representing Gulf Coast Ammonia, said in a written statement to the Houston Chronicle that the proposal “has enjoyed broad support” and will bring “quality jobs and economic benefits to the region.” The statement noted that the plant will produce “liquid ammonia,” not the more controversial ammonium nitrate, the chemical that caused the 1947 explosion in Texas City.
“We have heard and addressed all of the comments submitted during the permitting process and we will continue to place safety as the highest priority of our company,” Sims wrote.
Texas City Mayor Matthew Doyle told The Galveston Daily News that the $800 million project was a “nice deal” for the city.
Indeed, the city has rolled out the red carpet for Gulf Coast Ammonia with the decade-long tax abatement, the maximum number of years that state law allows for cities to abate taxes for new development.
The city would forgo 100 percent of the plant’s property taxes while the company would pay a lump sum of between $750,000 and $1 million each year for the 10 years to the city in lieu of property taxes, depending on the property values and as long as that value is at least $450 million. The abatement is set to begin in 2021.
Property tax abatements for corporations are nothing new in Texas — a University of Texas study found that companies received more than $1.4 billion in property tax breaks from the state between 2005 and 2015.
Still, residents of Texas City, which has nearly 50,000 residents, are leery of yet another potentially hazardous facility. Galveston Bay sits to the east, and the Texas City industrial chemical and refining complex sits to the south. The “fenceline community” where the plant would be built bears the brunt of any toxic releases, as well as shelter-in-place and evacuation orders.
Bryan French, an attorney with the Lone Star Legal Aid’s Environmental Justice Team, submitted comment to the Army Corps of Engineers on Cannon’s behalf. He said Texas City qualifies as an Environmental Justice Community by federal standards encompassing sites with a risk management plan, hazardous waste and wastewater discharge, as well as exposure to air pollutants.
“This bay belongs to all of us. It’s a public resource, a lot of people benefit from it,” French said. “The people who work in refineries are on the bay or at the beach every week. They have a vested interest in this.”
A catastrophic event at the future Gulf Coast Ammonia facility or dock could put thousands of people at risk. Texas City High School, with 1,894 students, is located less than 2 miles from the site. Several other schools are even closer, including Roosevelt Wilson Elementary, Woodrow Wilson Alternative, Coastal Alternative and Blocker Middle schools.
Doyle, who did not respond to requests for comment, explained in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers in March that the city “does not take lightly the placement, construction, docking, processing, transport or handling of chemicals within its community.”
Gulf Coast Ammonia “plans on employing a number of precautions in the construction of the facility,” Doyle added, and the city has concluded that the “dock location and loading of vessels at this location poses no more risk than multiple vessels navigating the Texas City, Houston and Galveston Ship channels.”
The Port of Texas City and the Galveston Texas City Pilots are among those worried about a potential risk to navigation created by the proposed 140-foot long, 89-foot wide barge and dock facility that would border the Texas City Ship Channel and sit about 3,800 feet away from shore, connected via pipeline to the actual plant on the mainland.
Karol Chapman, the president of the Port of Texas City noted that the dock would be located at the “Texas City Y,” a high-traffic waterfront juncture where big ships and tankers typically make the turn toward the Port of Houston or the Port of Texas City.
“Our concern is in various weather circumstances or navigational circumstances, about 12,000 vessels a year go sailing past this point,” Chapman said. “You’ll have a barge or a ship tied up alongside that dock, and we have prevailing southerly winds out there, let’s say they get up to 20 mph, what impact would that have on (ships’) ability to pass?”
The Galveston Texas City Pilots largely agreed with Chapman’s concerns, stating in public comments that “the proposal currently lacks sufficient study and detail to receive the support of the Galveston Texas City Pilots.”
Industry competitors also submitted comments in support of the Port of Texas City’s position.
“It’s one of the busiest traffic intersections in the Western hemisphere, we wouldn’t want anything to ever slow that process down,” said Greg DeLong, a senior manager and marine liaison for Enterprise Products.
Alternative sites may be less cumbersome on the ship channel, including building a dock alongside the facility on the mainland, rather than offshore, Chapman said. She said Gulf Coast Ammonia executives seemed wary of spending money on the dredging that some of the alternatives would require.
“Their concerns are mainly for their own interests,” she said. “Our desire would be for them to locate their dock at not the most economical spot, but the safest.”
Another primary concern is the potentially hazardous health effects that anhydrous ammonia could have in the event of an accident.
The toxic gas typically is used to manufacture agricultural fertilizer and as an industrial refrigerant. If heated, the gas can explode. The use of fertilizers such as anhydrous ammonia dates back to the end of World War II, when the government built plants that produced ammonia to make bombs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anhydrous ammonia is a “pungent gas with suffocating fumes” stored at high pressures, and exposure can cause breathing difficulties, chemical burns, blindness and, at high concentrations, death.
“The thing with ammonia is, it’s both toxic and very explosive,” said the late M. Sam Mannan, a professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, who died last month. “Acidity when it gets out can cause breathing problems, things like that. If concentration is high enough, it could be a problem.”
The U.S. Coast Guard designates anhydrous ammonia as “especially hazardous cargo” that has “the potential for catastrophic consequences if discharged or released,” according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
While Gulf Coast Ammonia was quick to distinguish anhydrous ammonia from ammonium nitrate, the two compounds are considered “chemical cousins.” Anhydrous ammonia, while not as explosive, has caused its share of accidents.
Most recently, improper storage of anhydrous ammonia was found to have exacerbated a 2013 explosion of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, that killed 15 people, injured 180 and damaged more than 150 buildings in a five-block radius.
The West facility stored more than 50,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, more than five times the threshold quantity standard set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
A database compiled by the Center for Effective Government, a nonpartisan watchdog, found that from 1996 to 2011, there were 939 accidents at plants that stored large amounts of anhydrous ammonia, an average of one accident per week. These accidents killed 19, injured 1,651 and damaged almost $350 million in property.
Galveston Bay, Texas’ largest estuary, also is one of the state’s most polluted bodies of water.
Gulf Coast Ammonia, if built, would add 2.2 million gallons of industrial wastewater to the estimated 4 trillion gallons of wastewater that flow into Galveston Bay each year from sewers, industrial facilities and roads, according to advocacy group Environment Texas.
The company had a pending industrial wastewater permit application that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recently referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings for additional review.
David Galindo, director of TCEQ’s water quality division, urged the Army Corps of Engineers to have Gulf Coast Ammonia “explain how leaks from the pipelines will be prevented or minimized, considering that contents such as ammonia can be highly toxic to aquatic life.”
In his public comment to the Army Corps, Scott Jones, the director of advocacy for the Galveston Bay Foundation, urged Gulf Coast Ammonia to find a more suitable location for the plant.
“One of the reasons we said that location has all sorts of red flags is that it has all sorts of impacts to wildlife and to people,” Jones said.
The Galveston Bay Foundation is concerned that the discharge of wastewater into the bay could seriously harm wildlife, including shrimp and oysters, which would directly affect fishermen like Cannon.
“The biggest question to me personally is what’s this (wastewater) flow going to do?” Cannon said. “How can they possibly say that 2.2 million gallons will be absorbed quickly?”
Kenneth Teague, a Dallas-based ecologist who recently retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, noted that unlike some states, Texas does not have an ammonia water quality standard.
Teague noted that ammonia is highly toxic to aquatic life, and that the facility should be designed to minimize the risk of ammonia spills.
Cannon is a realist. He has seen too many chemical plants pop up along the shores of the bay to expect much from due process.
Cannon does have a list of requests for Gulf Coast Ammonia: conduct an environmental impact study; test the sediment quality before dredging, complete a Hazardous Toxic Radioactive Waste evaluation; ensure that the project will not lead to the loss of oyster reefs or any habitats for endangered species; and most importantly, address risk that their product poses to public health and the surrounding environment.
Cannon is well aware that any long-term impact from the plant may not affect him in his lifetime. He is the only member of the shrimping or commercial fishing industry to submit a public comment to the Corps of Engineers, a step he is glad to have taken it means future generations are spared the possible toxic effects of the ammonia plant in Galveston Bay.
“You’re not going to know a thing until it’s actually in the works. And guess what? That may be too late,” he said. “All of this is part of the life that I’ve been in now for 44 years. You just hate to see things destroyed.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com