EL PASO, Texas - A report posted on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's website states the gas released in the air during an "emission incident" at Western Refining was sulfur dioxide.
ABC-7 asked the TCEQ if the amounts of sulfur dioxide released Wednesday could be harmful to nearby residents. "At this time, there are too many variables to determine if the amounts released pose a risk," said Brian McGovern, a spokesperson with the TCEQ.
According the United States Environmental Protection Agency's website, "the largest source of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere is the burning of fossil fuels by power plants and other industrial facilities." The website further states, "short-term exposures to sulfur dioxide can harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficult. Children, the elderly, and those who suffer from asthma are particularly sensitive to effects of sulfur dioxide."
The report in the TCEQ website states the cause of the emission was: "FCCU spent slide valve malfunctioned." Under "action taken," the report states, "Initiated safe shutdown of unit and ensured that steam was provided to the flare for proper combustion of hydrocarbons."
According to the report, the incident started at 11:43 am and ended at 7:22 pm Wednesday. It states Western Refining has a permit (No. 18897) to release 33.65 pounds per hour of Sulfur Dioxide at "Source 1." The report states "Source 1" released an estimated 100 pounds of sulfur dioxide during the incident.
The report further states Western Refining has a permit (No. 18897) to release .01 pounds per hour of sulfur dioxide at "Source 4." An estimated 1,957 pounds of Sulfur Dioxide were released during the incident, the report states.
"The emissions authorized by the permit may be based on operational limitations or other factors. Therefore, the emissions authorized by Permit Number 18897 may not be directly comparable to the estimated emissions released during the emissions event," McGovern said.
After contacting the refinery Wednesday, Gary Hanson, VP Corporate Communications at Western Refining, sent ABC-7 a statement. It merely stated there was an "incident" in which something was released and contained.
The TCEQ said Western Refining provided a notification (incident no. 250319) about 30 minutes following the visual start of the incident, and within the required 24-hour time frame.
The TCEQ said the initial notification contains estimated emissions, which may be revised in the final notification, due two weeks from the end of the event. McGovern said the TCEQ will conduct its own investigation after it receives the final report from Western Refining.
"The investigation is not complete on what it was, but it looks like it was a bad valve and that's what caused the problem," Hanson told ABC-7 Friday after reading the report posted in the TCEQ website.
"The cloud of smoke that people see in the pictures there were 100 pounds of sulphur dioxide that was part of that cloud and the wind was blowing toward the Northeast and it happened in the South plant," Hanson said. "So, the reason we didn't see a lot of this in our fence line monitors is because the wind took it right across our North plant and away from the neighborhoods, and by the time it got out of our fence line, had petty much dissipated."
"The flare is 400 feet up in the air, and when we have a release like this, steam is added to it," Hanson added. "98% of it was combusted as it went into the air. The flare system is 400 feet up in the air and there's a reason it's that high because when you have an environmental issue it's so it can be dispersed into the atmosphere as opposed to ground level where you would have more of a personal interaction with people."
Hanson told ABC-7 the TCEQ categorizes the emission release as a "mechanical malfunction considered an exception to your permit."
"Based on tests we ran and monitored, and the wind velocity, and the track everything took, we feel that there shouldn't be any problems. We wouldn't want to put anyone into danger," Hanson said. "We have had people walking and driving the neighborhoods to talk with neighborhood residents to find out if there is anything out of the norm."
The TCEQ added its regional office also received a complaint from a member of the public. It will also be looking into that complaint.
ABC-7 also reached out to the City of El Paso. "The City's ESD Air Quality has been in contact with the TCEQ Region 6 Office, who will be handling the investigation of what occurred and to ensure compliance with Western's federal air permit," said Karl Rimkus, an|Air Quality and Environmental Compliance Programs Manager with the City's Environmental Services Department.
Residents in the area say despite the incident they feel the air quality has gotten better in recent years.
"I know I haven't had any issues thus far. My kids haven't had any issues breathing wise so it's not too alarming. If it were to continue happening or if the smell were to be persistent and for a long period of time, maybe but as of right now it's not a concern," said Samuel Palomino.