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Houston Refinery has Sulfur Dioxide Leak - 28 sent to hospital

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10/04/2006 05:21 PM
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Houston Refinery has Sulfur Dioxide Leak - 28 sent to hospital
Valero gas release sends 28 to hospital

From staff reports

Twenty-eight people were taken to the hospital this morning after a release of sulfur dioxide gas at the Valero refinery in East Houston.

The all-clear was sounded shortly after 1 p.m. after an evacuation this morning at the site at 97th and Manchester.

Houston Fire Department officials said 28 people complaining of respiratory problems were taken to hospitals.

Mary Rose Brown, Valero's senior vice president for corporate communications, said there was no sulfuric acid spill, as had been reported earlier, but there was a release of sulfur dioxide gas from a sulfuric acid tank.

The company advised people living near the plant to "shelter in place," Brown said, meaning they should stay inside until further notice. That shelter in place was lifted shortly before noon.

Authorities also told two schools in the Houston Independent School District - ALTA Academy and J.R. Harris Elementary School - to shelter in place.

The district also has put Davila Elementary, which neighbors J.R. Harris, under the same precautions, according to the HISD press office.

Sulfur dioxide gas is a main combustion product of sulfur compounds. Sulfur dioxide has many uses including to make sulfuric acid.

Sulfur dioxide is severely irritating to the eyes, mucous membranes, skin and respiratory tract. Bronchospasm, pulmonary edema, pneumonitis and acute airway obstruction can occur.

Valero Energy Corp., has six refineries in Texas. The company agreed to a pay a $5.5 million penalty and spend $700 million on pollution controls in six states as part of a recent settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency and five states, including Texas.

As part of the settlement, Valero agreed to cut emissions of smog-forming pollutants, including 3,600 tons of nitrogen oxides and 6,000 tons of sulfur dioxide in Texas.

In August, the Valero Refining-Texas L.P. agreed to $700,000 in state fines stemming from 16 air pollution violations last March and April.

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the company exceeded emissions limits, failed to properly report emission events and failed to prevent nuisance conditions. The settlement required Valero to correct the problems, which the company said already was underway.

At the same time, Valero also agreed to a settlement with the city of Houston, agreeing to help 50 residents near the southeast Houston plant weatherize their homes and offer college scholarships to Milby High School students.