County sues La Porte plant over suspected water contamination

By Keri Blakinger, Houston Chronicle

December 30, 2016

   A white residue tinted nearby plants, a gelatinous substance clouded pools of water and aluminum solutions oozed out of uncapped containers onto the ground when county inspectors stopped by Gulbrandsen Technologies last year, according to court papers.

   Nineteen months earlier, a mechanical failure at the company's La Porte plant caused a 400-gallon spill of a neurotoxic chemical that created a fog-like cloud that wafted over to a neighboring plant.

   The spill was a relatively small-scale mishap, but taken in combination with the other incident, it was enough to touch off a lawsuit.

   The Harris County Attorney's Office filed a legal claim last month asking for stiff civil penalties and injunctive relief that would force the chemical company to implement a site-specific Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan, decommission a problem reactor and comply with its existing air emission permit.

   Laura Cahill, the senior assistant county attorney behind the suit, said the plant's recent history shows a "lack of taking care of business" and a failure to properly monitor waste.

   "It's indicative of a facility that does not have good housekeeping," she said.

   In a statement to the Chronicle, however, Gulbrandsen vowed to correct the problems cited in the suit and said the company "values our environment, the safety of our employees, and a strong partnership with our community."

   The international company is the world's largest supplier of anhydrous aluminum chloride, the powder form of a chemical used in farming, cosmetics and petrochemicals, according to the lawsuit.

   Harris County Pollution Control Services Department started looking at the company's La Porte location in 2014 in response to a neighboring business's complaint of a "white, fog-like, gaseous chemical cloud" emanating from the Gulbrandsen building starting around midnight on April 12, according to an investigator's report.

   That night, while the company was mixing hydrochloric acid, aluminum hydrate and water to make an aluminum chloride solution, a remote temperature sensor malfunctioned and 400 gallons of mixture boiled over and spilled out of the reactor, a Gulbrandsen employee later explained to Pollution Control.

   The company's spill team cleaned up the 15-minute-long mishap within a few hours, but not before three workers next door at Braskem, a petrochemical company, spotted a white cloud moving over the field from Gulbrandsen. When the cloud arrived, they started coughing and their eyes stung - possible side effects of aluminum chloride exposure.

   The Braskem workers retreated inside until they felt better, and their shift supervisor phoned a complaint to Gulbrandsen.

   The innocuous-sounding chemical is actually a neurotoxin, according to M. Sam Mannon, director of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University. But brief exposure doesn't necessarily cause permanent damage.

   "If you are able to remove yourself from it reasonably quickly, there are no irreversible effects so the irritations to the eyes and respiratory system are temporary in nature," he said.

   For Cahill, the concern is the possibility of a bigger spill that could have serious consequences.

   "If it's on a larger basis it could have a much more devastating effect," she said.

   Because the liquid spill was below levels for required reporting, Gulbrandsen never told the county's Pollution Control or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and did not test for air emissions or do any off-site air monitoring.

   Afterward the plant manager acknowledge that the company, "poorly managed the potential off-site impacts associated with their spill event," according to the Pollution Control investigator's report.

   Ultimately it was not the release itself, but the fact that it didn't come from an approved emission point that led to the county's legal action.

   But when another complaint from Braskem prompted investigators to visit twice in November 2015, they found a bigger problem: evidence of storm water contamination but no current site-specific storm water plan.

   On a swath of undeveloped land between the two plants, investigators spotted pooled water containing an "unknown white gelatinous substance" that discolored surrounding vegetation, according to a Pollution Control report. Testing showed low pH and a facility tour revealed broken and uncapped chemical totes.

   After investigators finishing touring the site, the county doled out two violation notices for each November visit, in addition to one for the 2014 spill.

   "Gulbrandsen has taken corrective actions to address the issues and claims brought forth by Harris County," the company said in a statement. "Gulbrandsen has made significant investments to resolve the issues and is working diligently to provide Harris County all of the information requested in the application for injunctive relief.

   "We will resolve the issues quickly and to their full satisfaction."

   But Rock Owens, managing attorney who oversees the County Attorney Office's environmental group, said the company hasn't been cooperative so far.

   "We've tried over a very lengthy period of time to try to get them to come into compliance," he said. "These people have been recalcitrant."

   Although environmental suits are routine, Owens said, cases involving this sort of water quality violation are "relatively rare."

   "We might file four or five a year," he said.

   If the county wins the suit, Gulbrandsen could be forced to pay up to $25,000 per day of observed violation.

   In the meantime, the plant will continue operating.

   "The concern sometimes is that if they have it once, they'll have it again," Cahill said. "But what is more of a big deal is that they are operating without a storm water permit. That is very concerning to us."