The Investigators: Thousands of pounds of toxic gas released during Valero incident

Studies: Neighborhoods near industrial facilities tend to have more health problems
Published: Apr. 9, 2021 at 6:45 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 9, 2021 at 6:46 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Massive flames at the Valero Oil Refinery could be seen from miles away after the facility’s equipment froze during February’s winter storm.

Fire and oil spewed from the stacks requiring environmental clean up on the ground and in the creek nearby.

A new report from Valero that shows more of the fallout that occurred that night: thousands of pounds of a toxic gas were released in the incident.

The West Junction neighborhood sits in the shadow of the Valero facility in South Memphis.

Over the years, people in the neighborhood have moved away.

“Children used to be all up in here like flowers,” said Steve Clay, who has lived in West Junction his entire life.

Clay’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents also had homes on his street.

As children and families moved on, Valero remained a steadfast neighbor.

“Why haven’t you moved?” Asked The WMC Action News 5 Investigators.

“I live here. I’m not going anywhere,” said Clay.

Giant flames erupted from the neighboring facility on February 15th during the winter storm.

We now know that equipment froze at Valero causing a refinery-wide shutdown and multiple flarings.

Flarings usually look like a brief but consistent flame that burns excess gas at refineries nationwide.

Valero said of the February 15th flaring via email the next day that “no community impacts are anticipated.”

But oil was released from the flares that night and pictures submitted by Valero to the state show a dark substance covering trees and brush near the facility.

Containment booms were also deployed to keep the oil from moving downstream in Nonconnah Creek, which runs alongside the refinery and empties into the Mississippi River.

The WMC Action News 5 Investigators have obtained a report submitted by Valero to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

The report, dated March 17th, shows waste oil was also being “carried by the wind”.

The wind was blowing toward the Southeast that night, according to the National Weather Service, in the direction of Steve Clay’s home.

“Do you think you breathed that in?”

“I hope not,” said Clay. “I hope not.”

The report also shows a toxic gas was released during the incident - sulfur dioxide.

Sulfur dioxide is “very toxic” according to the National Institutes of Health, and the federal government regulates how much of the gas can be released in the atmosphere.

If more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide are released within 24 hours it must be reported to government officials.

Valero said in its report that 6,089 pounds of sulfur dioxide were released from February 14 to 19th; on average, that’s just over 1,000 pounds a day, which is twice the amount that triggers mandatory reporting to government regulators.

“Valero said that no community impacts are anticipated. Do you think your community has been impacted?”

“Yes because of the stuff that’s coming over anyway,” said Clay.

Wesley James with the University of Memphis says people who live near industrial facilities are sicker than those who aren’t. He studies how living near industrial facilities impacts someone’s health.

In a peer-reviewed study that James co-authored, he shows where most of industrial facilities in Memphis are located and the neighborhoods nearby.

“These are all neighborhoods that are 75% to 100% African-American,” said James. “The poverty rates in most, if not all, this area is very high.”

James says industrial facilities typically move in after people have planted roots.

The Valero refinery was built in 1941, years after Clay says his family members moved into West Junction.

“That’s not just here in Memphis, that’s all over the United States for decades,” said James.

“Why?” Asked The Investigators.

“Places that might have more resources and power are not going to let those places come in and so it’s easier to go into a place where there’s not as much influence there,” said James. “That’s why you typically see facilities going in places where there are minority populations or poor populations. That’s one of the main issues that links race with location.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says oil refineries are “a major source of hazardous and toxic air pollutants.”

Over time those pollutants can hurt the health of those living nearby.

James’ study also shows the largely African-American neighborhoods in Memphis that are located near industrial complexes have more health risks and bear a higher cancer risk burden than those living in White neighborhoods.

Clay’s mother, father and grandmother died of cancer though he has yet to have any health issues.

Living near an oil refinery doesn’t mean you will get sick but the chances are greater says James.

He says the flarings in February may have been a one-two punch for those who are breathing in more toxic air on a consistent basis.

“On top of the chronic exposure that you’re already dealing with could potentially make the situation worse and maybe even a lot worse,” he said.

But Clay is staying put and not worrying about the future. He has his family and friends living nearby.

“How would you describe this neighborhood?” Asked The Investigators.

“Lovely. My neighborhood is a wonderful neighborhood,” said Clay.

Valero did not respond to an email request for comment.

The Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation said Valero has not been fined in connection with the incident.

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