Caustic Leak at Port Arthur Oil Refinery Causes $300 Million Damage

The Motiva oil refinery in Port Arthur, TX experienced a caustic leak on June 2 which went unnoticed for at least a week. By the time the problem was discovered, company representatives announced June 25, extensive damage had been suffered in one of the plants crude distillation units. The cost to repair the damage was already estimated at $300 million, with some plant units still awaiting damage inspections.

In 2005, Shell and Motiva announced plans to expand the Port Arthur refinery, making it the largest in the U.S., with the capacity to produce 6 million gallons of gasoline each day. Though the repairs took five years and ran well over budget, the plant was up and running by May of 2012. Unfortunately, problems at the plant began almost immediately.

On May 28, crossed wires in a temperature gauge resulted in flaring from the plant's diesel-and-gas-making hydrocracker unit (flaring is a process that burns off hydrocarbon liquid and gas through a tower to relieve internal pressure.) Port Arthur already has the reputation of being one of the most polluted cities in the country, and chemical releases such as this one do nothing to counteract that impression.

Just a few days later on June 2, plant authorities discovered that a leaking valve was allowing vapors to escape from the crude unit. Production had to be halted temporarily in order to search for the valve. It took nearly a week to discover the source of that leak, but instead of completely shutting down the problem unit, it was merely kept from producing oil. The decision was made to prevent cooling off, which would have led to longer delays once the valve was fixed, but it actually fostered an environment which allowed the extensive damage to occur and run rampant, undetected, through much of the plant.

While authorities were searching for the leaky valve, caustic was unknowingly leaking through the plant as well. Caustic is a base used to counteract the acidity of heavy sour crude, and is a harmless substance when crude is present. Because, however, crude was absent due to the halt in production, but temperatures were still high since the plant had not been shut down, the caustic vaporized, causing extensive chemical corrosion. The caustic leak was only detected when two fires erupted in the plant, the result of cracks in steel pipes caused by the corrosion. By that time, however, plant authorities said they had, "The worst case scenario. Extensive damage throughout the crude unit. All of it."

For now, Motiva is trying to determine the cause of the caustic leak as well as the time and exact dollar amount that will be required to fix the damage it caused. As the investigation continues, the attorneys at Arnold & Itkin worry that other problems at this refining giant may go undetected as well, putting Port Arthur residents at risk of exposure to more toxic chemicals. When refineries like Motiva's Port Arthur facility are unable to control chemical leaks, the results can be devastating to both plant employees and local citizens. If you or a loved one has been harmed by the release of toxic chemicals from an oil refinery, our lawyers may be able to help you receive compensation for your injuries, as well as damage to your property. Contact our office today for a free and confidential consultation.

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