Where the Wells Gush Super Unleaded

By Kathy Mitchell
February 1992; pages 3, 10-11; Volume 3, No. 3

On February 10, East Austin residents led a delegation of city and state officials through the neighborhoods surrounding a cluster of gasoline storage facilities off Springdale Road. Area residents hope to bring East Austin environmental issues before city council soon, starting with a public debate over Mobil Oil's efforts to expand their Springdale facility.

Mobil seeks to expand
Mobil seeks a permit to expand its capacity by 60%, despite ongoing concerns about water quality in the neighborhood.

The Mobil terminal at 1111 Springdale receives processed gasoline from a Beaumont refinery, and distributes the product to gas stations all over Central Texas. It is one of six such facilities clustered together on Springdale, in an older Hispanic neighborhood. The bulk terminals for Exxon, Chevron, Star Enterprises, Coastal States, Citgo and Mobil all sit a half mile north of Boggy Creek and 1.5 miles north of the Colorado. Currently the Mobil facility receives and distributes about 1.5 million barrels of gas and diesel products each year. But it recently applied for a Texas Air Control Board (TACB) permit to up that figure to 2.4 million barrels. That would make the third such permit approved this year in the same area, according to the city's Environmental Services staff.

Two groups of East Austinites, People Organized in Defense of the Earth and its Resources (PODER) and the East Austin Strategy Team (EAST) currently oppose the permit because questions posed by East Austin residents have yet to be answered.

Choking on Black Gold

The Mobil site and its five sister facilities were last year ordered to clean up groundwater contamination by the Groundwater Enforcement Unit of the Texas Water Commission. A November 1991 report from the Water Commission indicated that one sample well contained 1.2 inches of petroleum products floating on the ground water.

In addition, the Mobil and nearby Chevron sites were never fully permitted under 1990 air standards because they were built long before the EPA began to regulate large gasoline storage facilities. The sites were "grandfathered" under EPA regulations, said Steve Anderson of the TACB. Currently Mobil alone emits 45 tons of air pollution each year, Anderson said. Airborne pollutants include benzene, toluene, xylene and others. According to the Materials Safety Data Sheets filed with the Texas Air Control Board, Benzene, the primary component of gasoline, is known to cause nausea, headaches and upper respiratory tract irritation upon repeated or heavy exposure.

On January 30, residents of the Govalle neighborhood met in the Oaksprings library to discuss the proposed capacity expansion.

Neighbors of the facility, living on the eastern and southern bordering streets, testified that they and their children have suffered health problems ranging from headaches to breathing disorders and temporary paralysis. They notice the smell of gasoline every day, and when the facility burns off its excess fumes, the dust sprinkles down over area homes.

Speaking softly in Spanish, Federina Rivera said that since moving into her home, three doors down from the tanks, she has headaches so severe that she vomits from them. She has never had health problems before, she said, but now despite repeated tests, doctors can find nothing wrong.

Untouchable Chevron
Under the Quayle plan, the Air Board cannot act against Chevron.

Another resident, Maryanne Flores of 1102 Berger, has tried to complain to the Texas Air Control Board about the smell and the drainage from the site.

"I can't remember when this started. I have a five year old son. I live next to Mobil, and they have a place where they drain water into an empty lot next to us. My son played in the water in the lot, and the next day he began to have this terrible skin problem. I called the plant and they said it was rain, but it hadn't rained for days. I called the Air Board, but I don't know what they did."

Luby Peria, who lives on Alf Street, has tried to get both medical and legal advice over an eye condition that she thinks is caused by the gas and dust in the air.

"All the time that smell," said Peria, "I can't keep the windows open for the smell. My eyes are watering now, and just water and water. I have talked to them about my face, my eyes. I got some of that stuff and took it to the doctor, and he said, well, it can be that but he wasn't sure. I went to a lawyer who said the same thing."

Anderson points out that the currently grandfathered Chevron site was supposed to come under review by the TABC, until President Bush established the recent moratorium on new environmental regulations. Thanks to Bush, for the next three months no one at the TABC can do anything. The city, however is not bound by the moratorium.

The city staff has already reviewed the TACB proposal, giving it cautious approval, but they expressed some reservations about the total benzene level in the air. While one facility may emit less than EPA requirements allow, six facilities together emit an unknown quantity more that the EPA allows.

In a November 1991 letter, the city's Environmental Services department wrote, "Our concern remains for the impact of the total benzene emissions on the neighborhoods adjacent to the six adjoining gasoline terminals ... We request, if its possible, monitoring to be conducted in this area to determine actual total benzene concentrations."

Dug a Well, and it Came Up ... Super Unleaded?

According to Texas Water Commission (TWC) files, the six bulk fuel terminals along Springdale Road store over ten million gallons of petroleum. In March of 1991, a Water Commission field investigator reported that the bulk facilities "all have varying degrees of groundwater contamination at their facilities. Some have been documented to have free phase hydrocarbons on the groundwater ... it appears that there are numerous plumes of contamination." "Free phase hydrocarbons" is a technocratic euphemism for gasoline products.

The groundwater is 20 feet below the surface. Since last year, numerous new sampling wells have identified petroleum products floating free on the surface of the ground water beneath the facilities.

A Chevron consultant, writing to Chevron's management on November 4, 1991, reported 1.2 inches of petroleum in a well near the loading dock. In a September letter to the Water Commission, Mobil detailed a series of samples taken in 1990 and 1991 - on July 6, 1990 engineers recorded more than six inches of gasoline product in one well, and in March of '91 they observed more gasoline in the groundwater.

Under the Primary Drinking Water Regulations, the federal government limits benzene levels in water to .005 mg/l. A February 1992 report by Chevron to the Water Commission charts benzene levels in the sampling wells as high as 26 milligrams/liter, or 5200 times the legal limit. Chevron also reported high levels of xylene, Toluene and Ethybenzene in several test wells.

Exxon, careful to point the finger at Chevron in its own "Remedial Work Plan," wrote in November 1991: "Free product on top of the water table at the Chevron Terminal was first documented in Chevron's June 1987 Phase I Subsurface Investigation Report, and has been documented in several reports since June 1987. More recently in Chevron's Nov. 27, 1990 quarterly report free product was documented in Chevron's well MW-25, located directly up gradient from Exxon's well MW-5."

The TWC's Groundwater Enforcement Unit has currently combined all the involved companies into a single case, according to enforcement officer David Ruckman.

Mobil's Austin Terminal, built in 1948, receives gasoline and diesel fuel piped in from Beaumont. It stores the fuels in tanks above the ground, eventually loading it into trucks for distribution. Similarly, Chevron has been distributing gasoline from this site since 1954, Star Enterprises since 1947 and Exxon since 1951.

According to the September 20, 1991 letter to the Water Commission, Mobil can document two major spills in the 1970s but none later. In one instance 15,000 gallons of kerosene spilled on reportedly frozen ground, and was vacuumed into trucks.

TABC might soon review the grandfathered Chevron site, but for Quayle's moratorium on new regulations. Thanks George.

Also in the 70s, between one and six thousand gallons of premium unleaded spilled from a leaking supply line. Mobil representatives did not say how much they recovered in either incident.

Chevron reported spilling 12,600 gallons of fuel in 1987. It recovered 400 gallons. In a docking accident in 1988, a driver and crew spilled an additional 807 gallons of super unleaded, retrieving 722 gallons. Neither Star nor Exxon report any spills, although both report high levels of gasoline product below their property.

Tangling with the System

Despite this long history of air and water pollution, area residents have only recently begun to fight company efforts to expand. Suzanna Almanza and Sylvia Herrera of PODER brought Mobil's small Statesman announcement to the attention of Govalle residents and asked that the permit be placed on the city council agenda. Among other things, residents complain that the "Public Notice" in the Austin American Statesman was obscure.

"They put a small notice in the paper, but if you don't know what its about already, you skip right over it," said Almanza. "And most people never see the notice at all."

Federal Primary Drinking Water Regulations limit benzene levels in water to .005 mg/l. A Feb. 1992 report by Chevron charts benzene levels as high as 26 milligrams/liter, or 5200 times the legal limit.

The Air Control Board insists that the permit may be the only thing that can save the neighborhood. "This site has never been through the permit process before. If you want to put in a new source, your grandfathered unit must be updated to state-of-the-art," said Anderson. "If the permit is denied, they can go on putting out the 48 tons of pollutants that they currently emit.

"Under the 1990 [federal] Clean Air Act, they will need to reduce emissions to 25 tons per year." If the permit is approved, he said, the TACB will require that Mobil take two of three waste storage tanks out of service, install air filters on the third, and make other changes to the filtration and incineration process.

Govalle Neighborhood

Glen Maxey, who toured the area on February 10 with EAST and PODER, disagrees.

"At first glance it sounds great. You get more product and a higher standard for the area. But, there are a number of other issues involved. This is in the center of a neighborhood. There's a playground, a school, parks, residences. And more product means there will be more transportation issues, safety issues and spills."

According to 1990 Austin Fire Department records, fire fighters responded to at least eight calls involving tankers or 18 wheeler transport.

On Nov. 29, for example, a tanker truck with a broken fuel line leaked 50 gallons on East Ben White. No such accidents were listed for the Airport Blvd.-Springdale area, but tankers picking up petroleum from the Springdale terminals travel all over town.

Although the city's Environmental Services department has already reviewed the permit, neither city staff nor TABC investigators were aware that the Water Commission had simultaneously begun an independent enforcement.

Asked if knowledge of the Mobil violations cited by TWC would have effected their deliberations, Environmental Services chief Fred Rogers said yes, and added that he would check with city staff for more information.

PODER's Suzanna Almanza has called for a public hearing on the Mobil permit, and a city council resolution. "It's for the community to decide that they want this. Our representatives at the City are at your door when they need the votes. Now we need their support. We are going to call on them to reject the permit and clean up the neighborhoods where we live."