Magellan, industry need to be held accountable for damage to communities and public health

At the beginning of the holiday season, the pipeline company Magellan Midstream Partners participated in a community Thanksgiving dinner event put on by the Mayor of Galena Park for the city’s residents. The gesture on Magellan’s part, however, was too little too late. That is because it did nothing to address the harmful impacts of the largest reported spill during Hurricane Harvey or other air quality issues that continue to affect this community on a daily basis.

Some 11,000 barrels of gasoline – almost 500,000 gallons – escaped from two storage tanks at Magellan’s Galena Park complex. As a result, the tank failures released an estimated 2.5 million pounds of air pollution, including 13,000 pounds of benzene, a known cancer-causing chemical found in crude oil and gasoline.

While Magellan notified the Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, among other agencies, the company did not fully inform the 11,000 people who live in Galena Park. Magellan’s initial report did not indicate how much gasoline leaked, and its second report put the volume at 1,000 barrels, the Houston Chronicle reported. Nearly two weeks passed before federal and state agencies acknowledged the extent of the spill.

In Galena Park, meanwhile, we knew something was wrong. We could smell it. The strong odors of gasoline carried into our homes, even after we closed the doors and windows. Our eyes burned. Our minds raced. While we live with a daily burden of air pollution because our proximity to the heavily industrial Houston Ship Channel, these smells were different, and we did not have any information. We were worried about what we were breathing, wondered why we had not received any warnings to shelter in place and questioned if we should leave town.

It can be easy to accept unusual smells from petrochemical plants as a way of life in this town, but we cannot escape the reality that these facilities are putting our kids’ health and well-being at risk here. We also live with the increased risk of our children developing cancer and respiratory illnesses.

Magellan has not held itself accountable for the pollution in August. Instead, the company has blamed the massive release of gasoline on the failure of floating roofs atop two storage tanks. The roofs collapsed under the weight of Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall, exposing vulnerabilities in their design of the roofs. In all, more than 15 of them failed at facilities across the Houston region during the storm. While the size of the Magellan episode is significant and alarming, I am mostly troubled about the delay in providing accurate information.

It is critically important for Magellan and others to report pollution events to residents as quickly as possible so they can take necessary steps to protect themselves and their families. Industry needs to take responsibility for damages to communities, human health, infrastructure and the environment. It is imperative that companies make the necessary investments and implement best practices to avoid spills and other releases of hazardous pollutants – and protect their neighbors.

For those gestures, I would be thankful.

Juan Flores is a Galena Park resident and community outreach coordinator at Air Alliance Houston.