Sulfur Dioxide Release at Pasadena Plant Highlights Importance of Emergency Preparedness

A plant-wide power outage at the Pasadena Refining Systems Inc. refinery in Pasadena, Texas, on Monday, July 25, forced the plant to flare off some product, including sulfur dioxide. The toxic black smoke drifted into the nearby community, prompting a partial shutdown of the Houston Ship Channel and a precautionary shelter-in-place alert for residents of Galena Park, according to news reports.

The alert was lifted after several hours and the shipping channel reopened.

“They (PSRI) were responsible, made notification like they were supposed to and took care of business,” said Pasadena Fire Marshal David Brannon.

Fortunately no injuries were reported as a result of this sulfur dioxide (SO2) release, but the incident should serve as yet another reminder that preparedness begins with the acknowledgment that events can and do occur out of our control. Whether you can prevent the event or not, being as prepared as possible to respond to any emergency is of the utmost importance for facility operators and first responders.

During these kinds of unplanned releases, there are bound to be more questions than answers available.

What is actually happening on the ground?

Where is the gas and where is it going?

How much SO2 is being exposed to employees, responders, and neighbors?

Where should we monitor downwind for SO2?

How is air quality being affected in this incident?

Is it safe to shelter-in-place or should we order an evacuation?

When can we say it is safe for the community?

SO2 is an extremely hazardous substance. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) as exposure to airborne contaminants that is “likely to cause death or immediate or delayed permanent adverse health effects or prevent escape from such an environment.”

The published IDLH concentration for SO2 is 100 parts per million (PPM). That means that if the air you breathe is 0.01% or greater of SO2, then you are being exposed to an environment that could cause death or permanent adverse health effects. According to the American Industrial Hygiene Association, exposure for one hour or more at concentrations as low as 0.00003% atmosphere can cause mild health effects.


Stack Flaring

Many refineries and chemical plants in the United States are integral parts of their communities — offering jobs to its residents, providing tax revenue to support the community infrastructure and operations, and offering community support through corporate social responsibility programs. Embracing the community means acknowledging that accidents happen and that no facility is without risk, and no community is immune to the consequences.

This specific accident in Galena Park resulted from a tree falling over in storm causing a power outage and subsequent safety equipment failure. No amount of operational excellence, operator training, reliability and maintenance, or safety compliance could have stopped this event.

Acknowledging these things allows companies to invest in emergency preparedness, planning, and response. Implementing and deploying tools to monitor – in real-time – muster points, evacuation areas, the facility fenceline, and community locations for hazardous airborne substances is an important element of an effective air monitoring program and a foundational component of emergency response. In addition to monitoring tools, utilizing a real-time pollutant or contaminant tracking system is a necessity for identifying the areas and extent of impact.

Utilizing these real-time tools will take the guesswork out of mapping air pollutants, allowing facilities and first responders to react and make decisions with confidence, both inside the fenceline and in the communities they serve.

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