New look at old refinery aims to assess sources of pollution

New look at old refinery aims to assess sources of pollution

Source: http://www.news-journal.com, December 8, 2013
By: Peggy Jones

Federal oversight of the old Longview Refinery property on Premier Road entered a new phase this past week when environmental experts from across Texas met there to inspect existing groundwater monitoring wells and pick locations for new soil and groundwater testing that will begin early next year.

The new round of Environmental Protection Agency testing is aimed at determining whether toxic hazards still exist at the refinery, which operated from 1935 until 1992, and if so, to what degree. Officials said they hope results can determine the source of contamination and help them draw up a plan to remediate it.

Owner Ken Williams, under the gun to clean up the property, is making a case to the EPA that any contamination present today migrated from off-site, because there has been no activity on the property for 21 years.

In February the EPA will install 14 groundwater monitoring wells, collect subsurface soil samples from the monitoring well borings, and develop the new and existing monitoring wells according to an agreement reached between Williams and the federal agency. All data will be analyzed at the EPA laboratory in Houston.

The tour Monday was guided by Williams, president of Gregg County Refining, who told the group, “We have nothing to hide.”

They spent hours trudging through often-times shoulder-high brush to determine locations for the new test sites, most of which were selected based on topography and the flow of groundwater.

Among the group were four EPA employees — environmental engineers, enforcement officers and scientists; two federal government contractors who will conduct the work and three Houston-based professional geoscientists working with Williams.

A rare glimpse inside

The reconnaissance visit afforded a rare glimpse inside the high-fenced 35 acres Williams described as a wildlife sanctuary.

Throughout the complex Buffalo grass pushes through asphalt. Pine trees and oaks are among a wide variety of trees that have shouldered through skeletal remains of the facility which, at its peak of activity, produced 14,000 barrels a day and employed upwards of 100 workers. Willows and turtles flourish at the edge of a catch basin and matted mounds of blackberry vines swaddle several of the massive petroleum storage tanks.

Williams called it “a carbon sink in the middle of a highly industrialized area.”

Buildings appear to have been ransacked. Victim to vandals, abandonment and weather, most structures languish in disrepair with windows shattered, doors missing or off the hinges and many contents strewn about helter-skelter.

In one building a fresh deck of playing cards seemed oddly out of place on a weathered filing cabinet. Nearby, on the floor, an opened, handwritten ledger documented activity at the refinery in 1968.

Strands of electrical wiring litter the property, slit open and gutted by thieves for the copper that was once inside.

William estimated more than $3 million worth of vandalism was committed to the property before he bought it but, he said, the operating equipment that remains is still usable. Williams blames what he calls political interference for costing his company $180 million in Hurricane Ike bonds in 2012, which would have brought the refinery back to life, albeit in Rusk County.

The plan was to dismantle the refinery, reassemble much of it on a 165-acre site near New London and use the Premier Road property as a terminal for shipping the Rusk County refinery products.

The plan was quashed, Williams said, with a call from the EPA in October 2012.

History of problems

For decades, successive owners of 601 Premier Road have dealt with state and federal agencies over historic contamination.

The refinery operated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, which governs storage, management and investigation of hazardous waste at such facilities. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was the lead regulator until the state agency requested EPA take over.

EPA Environmental Engineer Richard Mayer said Longview Refinery was on the recovery act watch list long before it was acquired by Gregg County Refining.

Operated by Premiere Oil Co. starting in 1935, the refinery produced gasoline for almost four decades. It was bought by Shreveport-based Crystal Oil in 1972 and expanded in 1976. In 1978 the refinery was modernized, according to data furnished by Williams. That modernization, completed in 1980, brought capacity to 14,000 barrels a day. Financial problems forced a shutdown in 1982.

Longview Refining Associates bought the refinery and reopened it in 1989. It shut down in 1992, and that company later declared bankruptcy.

In 1993, Longview Refinery Associates submitted a bioremediation work plan to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which became TCEQ. There is no evidence the plan was implemented.

In 1995, an administrative order was issued by the conservation commission requiring a release assessment, cleanup and closure of solid waste management units; however, according to TCEQ, the refinery’s owner did not comply with the order.

Releases or spills were documented by TCEQ and/or EPA in 2001, 2005 and 2006.

County, city, school district

Gregg County, the City of Longview and Pine Tree ISD acquired the property for back taxes, auctioning it in December 2005 for taxes owed.

Gregg County Refining acquired it in 2006 and almost immediately sold it to Lazarus Texas Refining, which defaulted in 2010.

In 2008, an Administrative Order on Consent was issued by the EPA and signed by Jonathan Carroll on behalf of Lazarus Texas Refinery. The consent order noted “constituents identified at the former refinery include known and suspected carcinogens and mutagens, which can affect the central nervous system and damage internal organs at low levels.”

Williams said he never signed that agreement and questions the findings.

In March, EPA Regional Administrator Ron Curry wrote to U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert saying the agency was working with Williams to resolve environmental concerns.

“The EPA’s objective is to enter into an agreed order, without penalties,” Curry wrote.

Working with the EPA inspectors, Williams said it is the position of his company that the property is not as contaminated as previously believed and any existing pollution originates elsewhere.

“This was all so needless,” he said. “We had millions budgeted for cleanup (in the former plan) but when they got EPA breathing down our throats there was just no way to proceed. It would be tied up for years.”

Neighboring polluters

While Gregg County Refinery works with the EPA, some of its industrial neighbors received certificates of municipal setting, which effectively relieves those companies from further remediating groundwater contamination on their properties.

In December 2008, Shipper’s Car Lines, Southwest Steel Castings and Harris Industries were granted a Municipal Setting Designation. It is a relatively obscure law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003 that declares the groundwater at such sites off-limits for human consumption and limits the companies’ liability for remaining contaminants. It has been widely used since 2004 in Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The designation, known as an MSD, for the three properties was approved unanimously by the Longview City Council and, with the municipality’s blessing, was granted by TCEQ.

“Once an area receives an MSD, the property owner is relieved of the obligation to clean the groundwater to drinking water standards or indefinitely monitor the groundwater,” the designation states. “However, the groundwater must still meet all applicable environmental standards other than the drinking water standard.”

A property is eligible for certification as an MSD if it is within the corporate limits or extraterritorial jurisdiction of a municipality with a population of 20,000; and a public drinking water system serves the area surrounding properties within half a mile of the proposed MSD.

An MSD designation is normally granted by TCEQ when a property has monitored it’s groundwater for some time, said David Rowlands, professional geoscientist for World Environmental. The Houston firm represents Williams with the EPA.

“It means after a period of monitoring, the groundwater is either getting cleaner or at least not getting any worse,” Rowlands said. “And nobody is using it anyway.”

Disputed origin

Williams voiced concern that contaminated groundwater so near the refinery might affect upcoming test results.

“The majority of the contaminants found (in the most recent tests at the refinery) were never used in the refining process and had to have migrated onto the site,” Williams said.

Can that be determined by the EPA tests that will be conducted next year?

“It depends on what is found,” Mayer said. “If this (hypothetical) plume is a different contaminant, definitely you could tell. But if it’s the same constituents (used by the refinery) you couldn’t tell necessarily. There is a class of contaminants — chlorinated solvents — which are very common nationwide. If it’s that type of plume, you would be able to tell if a contaminant came onto the property.”

Mayer said an off-site source of groundwater pollution – if it exists — would have to be up-gradient from the refinery.

EPA spokeswoman Jennah Durant said contamination from another source is not an issue the federal agency is investigating.

Kurt Ritch, a professional geologist with ESA Consulting, an independent environmental firm in Longview, said the fact that there’s an MSD on adjoining property doesn’t say anything specific about the quality of groundwater.

“If the EPA finds contamination, additional investigation would be required to determine the source and potential fate of the contamination,” Rich said.

The most recent samples from the groundwater monitoring wells at Longview Refinery taken last year showed “nothing unusual,” Rowlands said.

“Some benzene, minor amounts of lead, arsenic, barium, but nothing above the protective concentration limits,” he said. “Most could be naturally occurring because they are not associated with the refinery process.”

Mayer agreed with Rowlands’ assessment that, since the refinery has been idle for so long, there is a possibility much of the prior contamination may have weakened or already bio-degraded.

“That is possible. These refinery types of wastes are organic and can be broken down by the environment. Others won’t degrade. Arsenic and lead won’t but benzene, xylene — some of the things in gasoline — those are volatile refinery contaminates and those can bio-remediate,” Mayer said.

“The only good thing is that it (the refinery) has been shut down 21 years. And, another good thing — a lot of the contaminants from refineries are biodegradable,” he said.

Mayer said Williams is cooperating with the EPA.

“We will get the data, evaluate it and make recommendations. He will be able to see what we recommend. His consultants will look at the data and make their own recommendations. There may be various options.”

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