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Exxon Refinery in Baytown Releases Massive Amount of Chemicals

Early yesterday morning, something went wrong at the ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, east of Houston.

In an emissions event report to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), ExxonMobil reports that there was shutdown of a unit at the refinery after a heat exchanger tube leaked, and the event is still ongoing.

Judging by the report, it could go on for several more days.

The amount of chemicals estimated to be released during the event are startling, and could exceed the permitted emissions for the facility:

So what's the danger of being exposed to these chemicals? There are plenty. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that just five minutes of exposure can lead to "adverse respiratory effects," especially for asthmatics. "Studies also show a connection between short-term exposure and increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses, particularly in at-risk populations including children, the elderly, and asthmatics," the agency says.

The ExxonMobil refinery is already the subject of a lawsuit by Environment Texas and the Sierra Club.

The suit claims the facility has violated the Clean Air Act "on more than 1,000 separate occasions during the past five years — compounding Texas' pollution problems and endangering the health of nearby residents." The environmental groups have had success in the past with similar lawsuits against a Shell Oil refinery and Chevron Phillips chemical plant in Texas, both of which settled out of court for millions of dollars and agreements to reduce pollution and enhance air monitoring.

ExxonMobil tried to have the suit dismissed, but it was upheld by a federal judge last summer and is proceeding. In the meantime, the company has announced plans to build a massive expansion of the plant that will cost billions of dollars.

Baytown is home to several refineries, ExxonMobil's is one of its largest. Oil and gas — an abundance of it lately, thanks to a shale drilling boom, has made Baytown a hub for petrochemical refining. In an earlier story on Baytown for StateImpact Texas, Dave Fehling laid out some of the environmental concerns of the sudden growth. As more refineries are built, there will be more industry and jobs. But there will also be more pollution, and the area is already designated as being in "Nonattainment" by the EPA for its poor air quality.

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