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Investigators: How much did the Valero flare impact the community

Updated: Mar. 25, 2021 at 9:12 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Massive flames at the Valero refinery in South Memphis could be spotted from miles away last month.

Valero said at the time that community impact wasn’t anticipated but the WMC Action News 5 Investigators have been digging into that statement.

The flames attracted attention from awestruck residents who posted pictures and videos of the sight.

“It looked huge,” said lifelong Memphian Ward Archer. “I thought it looked like bombs going off.”

The flames also attracted attention from local, state and federal environmental protection agencies.

Then, a week later, WMC Action News 5 cameras captured clean-up efforts on Nonconnah Creek.

More: Valero Memphis Refinery flare shines bright in wintry night sky

To understand why, you have to go back to Feb. 15 when temperatures hovered around 10 degrees.

Because of the cold temperatures, Valero said in a statement that it used its “safety flare system to safely burn off excess material and minimize potential emissions.” The practice, known as flaring, is typical in oil and gas production.

However, flaring usually consists of a brief and consistent flame that burns excess natural gas during oil production.

On Feb. 15, the flame was so big it produced a mist of hydrocarbons, or oil, that descended into and around Nonconnah Creek, which runs alongside the Valero refinery.

The day after the flare-off, a Valero spokesperson said in an email that “no community impacts are anticipated.”

But government emails and documents obtained by the WMC Action News 5 Investigators paint a different picture.

Photos provided by Valero to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) show the company deployed containment booms in the creek “to keep any oil from moving beyond the impacted area.”

The facility also notified the EPA’s National Response Center after the flare-off, and the U.S. Coast Guard a Prevention Duty Officer to the refinery where the officer remained on scene for approximately 90 minutes.

TDEC regulates state bodies of water, including Nonconnah Creek.

It was notified the day after the flaring but didn’t send anyone to the refinery until a week later, on Feb. 22.

TDEC said of the visit via email to the Investigators “no significant impacts to waters of the state were observed. No sampling or testing appears to be needed at this time.”

But TDEC also said “because the release was a mist and not a liquid”, it is unable to estimate how much oil entered the creek.

Other photos provided by Valero to TDEC show nearly 200 feet of the creek’s shoreline – including trees, brush and grass - covered in a dark substance.

The company submitted a cleanup plan ten days after the flaring on February 25th.

It shows that “vegetation and surface rock will be removed” as will trees and brush.

The state wrote back to Valero less than a week later that the removal was necessary “to protect the environment from further harm”.

The clean-up plan also includes taking soil samples from one area, testing them and sending the results to TDEC.

A photo from March 5th shows Valero’s remediation efforts. Felt and rock have now replaced the trees and brush.

Meanwhile, TDEC told the investigators “staff will remain in communication with Valero as the work continues, including any additional site visits as deemed necessary.”

However, it’s primarily up to Valero to report any potentially toxic material emitted at its site, but also the progress made in cleaning it up.

“Looking through some of the documents, it looks like that Valero has to self-report quite a bit. Does that concern you?”

“Yeah, it does,” said Archer. “Right now, it’s sort of an honor system.”

Archer is not only a lifelong Memphian, but he’s also President of Protect our Aquifer, a non-profit that works to guard Shelby County’s water source miles below the surface from contamination, including oil.

“Getting it into any body of water is concerning but Nonconnah Creek is known to have some areas where it’s connected to the Memphis sand aquifer,” he said.

Nonconnah Creek also empties into the Mississippi River.

While TDEC says it’s monitoring the hydrocarbon mist that landed in the water and on the ground, what about the air?

The National Institutes of Health says exposure to or inhalation of hydrocarbons may cause systemic issues including damage to the lungs, central nervous system and heart.

The Shelby County Health Department’s Air Pollution Control Branch is tasked with monitoring air quality.

We asked how many pounds of hydrocarbons were emitted the day of the flare and were told by a spokesperson that the answer is pending a report by Valero.

The investigators had more questions for state and local regulators.

We’re waiting to hear back on some of those requests and will bring you an update once they’re provided.

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