Flares from the Valero Memphis Refinery last week misted oil into Nonconnah Creek and released excess toxic gases in small amounts into the air, according to reports the company made to state and federal regulators.
Valero Energy Corporation self-reported a release of excess sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide Feb. 15 to the National Response Center, which notified the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, said Kim Schofinski, deputy communications director for TDEC. The next day, Valero reported that additional flares misted unburned oil from the refinery into Nonconnah Creek.
TDEC is overseeing cleanup efforts on Nonconnah Creek, a representative said.
Hydrogen sulfide, also known as “sewer gas,” is an extremely flammable and highly toxic gas that smells like “rotten eggs” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Sulfur dioxide is a toxic gas and a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. Sulfur dioxide exposure is common, such as when lighting a match, but it will cause breathing problems at high enough levels. Hydrogen sulfide in high enough amounts can cause death.
In a document reviewed by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, Valero reported that 101 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and 501 pounds of sulfur dioxide were released in the Feb. 15 flare. The amounts of the toxic chemicals were included in an incident report taken by the National Response Center, which falls under the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
If the amount reported is correct, the impact of the gases on neighboring communities in the short-term are likely to be low, said air pollution researcher Chunrong Jia, an associate professor in the Division of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Environmental Health at the University of Memphis. But how far the unburned oil traveled and the full scope of its impact on the environment and nearby Memphians is unclear.
Valero has been at the center of controversy recently because of its involvement in the proposed Byhalia Connection Pipeline. Valero partnered with fellow Texas-based company Plains All American Pipeline to propose a 45-mile pipeline from the refinery to a facility in Marshall County, Mississippi.
The pipeline would run through predominantly Black neighborhoods including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown. Memphis Community Against the Pipeline is fighting the plan, and is earning national attention. The Memphis City Council is considering measures to oppose the project and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is deciding whether to sell land to Byhalia Pipeline along its proposed route through Southwest Memphis.
Flares from the refinery lit up the sky Feb. 15 as Memphis was blanketed in snow. Downtown residents took video of the flares and posted online.
Gas flaring is a common practice where refineries burn excess gas for operational, safety, or economic reasons. But the practice is considered a major environmental problem and a contributor to the greenhouse effect and global warming, according to a 2015 Stanford University study.
Valero Energy’s Port Arthur refinery in Texas was sued in 2019 by the state attorney general’s office for allegedly emitting 1.8 million pounds of pollution over five years, in violation of the federal Clean Air Act. The emissions included hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide.
Last week, Valero attributed the flaring to the cold temperatures. “Due to the extreme cold weather, operational conditions at the Valero Memphis Refinery are requiring the use of the safety flare system to safely burn off excess material and minimize potential emissions. No community impacts are anticipated,” Valero spokesperson Lisa Jenkins told the Commercial Appeal.
Schofinski did not provide more information about chemical releases or the oil mist, and said the Shelby County Air Pollution Control Branch, which works under the Shelby County Health Department, has jurisdiction over the refinery.
“TDEC is currently working to assess any potential environmental impacts resulting from the hydrocarbon (oil) release,” Schofinski said Friday. “We are also continuing to oversee the cleanup efforts associated with that release.”
Shelby County has jurisdiction only over air pollution, said Shelby County Health Department spokeswoman Joan Carr. She directed any other questions about the flares to TDEC.
“Long-term exposure to even low-concentration air pollutants is known to cause respiratory diseases (such as asthma and COPD), cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and death,” Jia said.
However, the short-term effects of the two gases, Jia said, are likely negligible because the flares only lasted hours and the pollutants were dispersed into the sky resulting in low concentrations on the ground, among other factors.
Last week’s flares alone aren’t what concerns Jia most but rather that they become routine. Extra emissions are rarely reported to the Toxics Release Inventory, the database the Environmental Protection Agency uses to set emission policy and evaluate public health, Jia said.
“The major concern is that such unusual flares may become the norm and add a significant portion to the local and regional air pollution, which may cause long-term adverse health effects,” Jia said.
Industrial facilities across state lines flared excess gas due to interruptions from winter storms. A Valero refinery in Houston reportedly flared more than 3,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide, which contributed to 3.5 million pounds of excess air pollution in Texas.
Byhalia Pipeline donated to the Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research at the University of Memphis, the pipeline website shows. The company has paid out more than a million dollars to charitable organizations in the Mid-South.
State Rep. Barbara Cooper and State Sen. Raumesh Akbari hosted a town hall with representatives from TDEC Wednesday evening to learn more about the state’s involvement with the Byhalia Connection Pipeline. Other key voices in the pipeline fight spoke at the meeting including Councilman Jeff Warren and MCAP spokesman Justin J. Pearson.
Byhalia Pipeline’s project would run above the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which pipeline opponents argue poses a threat to the city’s main water source.
The Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit TDEC granted Byhalia Pipeline in November did not consider dangers to the aquifer and only evaluated the safety of surface waters, Ronné Adkins, Regional Director of External Affairs for TDEC, said in the meeting.
MCAP’s appeal of the permit is waiting for a court date, Adkins said.
Cooper said in the meeting she asked Gov. Bill Lee to weigh in on the pipeline fight and consider rescinding the state permit after he’s gotten the facts about the project.
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at email@example.com
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.