Texas may require Crown to install sulfur scrubber

Critics want refinery to use costlier process

August 04, 1999|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

A tentative ruling by a Texas environmental commission would force Crown Central Petroleum Corp. to install a $300,000 device to help stop sulfur emissions at one of its refineries in Texas -- an order readily accepted by the company but deemed insufficient by environmental groups and health officials who say Crown should install a more effective unit that would cost more than $20 million.

The move comes nearly a year after the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission fined Crown just over $1 million -- the largest air pollution fine ever issued by Texas -- for continued violations between 1993 and 1998 that included excessive hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide emissions at its Pasadena refinery.

Along with the fine, Baltimore-based Crown was ordered last year to hire two independent consulting firms to analyze the refinery and make recommendations to the commission for further anti-pollution measures. The firms' reports were folded into the commission's tentative directive to Crown, which is expected to be made final in the next few weeks. A draft copy of the order was obtained yesterday by The Sun.

Both Crown and the public have until Friday to comment on the tentative ruling, but officials at the commission said they do not expect substantial changes.

"We thought [the commission] did a very thorough job," J. Steven Wise, a spokesman for Crown, said yesterday.

Wise said the measures ordered by the commission likely would cost at least $300,000, but should not cause the company financial hardship. Crown has posted losses in seven of the past eight years and reported a second-quarter loss last week of $11 million.

The order is also unlikely to have any effect on Crown's bid to find "strategic alternatives," which could include selling all or part of the company, Wise said.

In the tentative order, the commission ordered Crown to install a scrubber that would use pressurized liquid to remove sulfur dioxide before gases are released into the atmosphere. Some environmental groups, however, wanted the commission to order a second, backup sulfur recovery unit like the one it already has, which uses absorption and combustion processes to burn out the sulfur.

Scrubbing technology is "a well-known, accepted practice that's being used in a number of other refineries across the country," said the commission's Troy Dalton, co-author of the directive.

Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services sent the commission a letter last month that said the scrubber would not be sufficient.

"The current facilities are incapable of efficient operation under many operating conditions and therefore an adequate, reliable, and technically proven technology is necessary. A new [sulfur recovery unit] will minimize the chances of a catastrophic release of hydrogen sulfide and other sulfur compounds," said the letter from Assistant Director Rob Barrett. "The caustic scrubber proposed to replace a backup [sulfur recovery unit] is a system [the county] believes to be a short-term solution."

Additionally, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, along with Texans United and the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, filed suit against Crown asking the court to force the refiner to install a backup recovery unit. The case was dismissed and is under appeal.

Neil Carman, who handles air-pollution issues for the Sierra Club, said a backup sulfur recovery unit would have cost between $20 million and $25 million.

"The [commission] is negligent in not requiring Crown to install a backup sulfur recovery unit," Carman, who formerly worked at the Texas commission as an inspector, said yesterday. "A caustic scrubber will only solve some of Crown's violations."

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