LAREDO, Texas – A regional project that promises jobs and a brighter future for three South Texas counties has lost the support of one of them.
This week, when members of the Tri-County Economic Development Coalition signed a Memorandum of Understanding, the absence of Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina was noticeable.
Tijerina told the Rio Grande Guardian that he didn’t attend the meeting because he can’t support what he doesn’t know enough about. He says he has not received sufficient documentation from Raven Petroleum for its South Texas Energy Complex refinery in Duval County.
The Tri-County Coalition, which includes Webb County, has been supporting the project for more than a year. South Texas Energy Complex has said the project will benefit Duval, Webb and Jim Hogg counties.
“I am against it. I am not comfortable with it,” Tijerina said. “I was for it very much since the start of it, but I just feel like we don’t have enough information at this time for me to even support this project.”
Tijerina has been having doubts about Raven Petroleum for the past few months. In an interview, earlier this year, told Rio Grande Guardian that his number one priority was safety.
Tricia Cortez, executive director for Rio Grande International Study Center (RGISC), an environmental non-profit group based in Laredo, said she doesn’t support the installation of the refinery because Raven Petroleum hasn’t submitted a permit request, but more importantly, because the company wants to install the refinery close to a high school, which, she said, brings environmental and health concerns to the project.
“The area they’ve chosen to place the refinery would be in the community of Bruni, where their middle and high school campus is, in the Quad City area, that’s four miles downwind of the refinery,” she said.
Cortez said RGISC has found that the immediate impact zone for refineries is five to ten miles downwind.
“This is very alarming. It’s something that hasn’t been discussed or addressed,” Cortez said. “It seems like it didn’t matter where they place it, it didn’t matter who was affected, it didn’t matter that it was miles from Bruni and that campus, and that’s wrong, irresponsible and terrible.”
Tijerina agreed with Cortez.
“The predominant wind in our area is always southwest, and that campus is at some four miles. I have not been educated, I don’t know anything, and I can’t express that to my constituents,” Tijerina said. “How am I going to enforce something if I don’t know what the harms are, or if there are any.”
Tijerina said he met with the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin at the beginning of February because there are projects like highways and bridges that are being built to support the refinery.
“I think it’s a little premature to be doing all of this when we don’t have solid information about what’s going to do to our environment,” Tijerina said.
He also said Raven Petroleum hasn’t sent him any information the company promised on the project.
Chemist Dr. Wilma Subra compiled information regarding how a refinery can affect a community.
“Refineries release millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the air. The immediate impact zone is approximately five to ten miles downwind from the site,” the study showed.
Bruni is located four miles from where Raven Petroleum wants to place its refinery, and Hebbronville is at six miles. The population in these two areas is of approximately 5,500.
The study by Dr. Subra shows that refineries are highly polluted companies, and the State of Texas allows some types of chemicals to be released into the air. These include benzene, dioxins and furans and 1,3 butadiene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, chlorine, cyclohexane, n-hexane, hydrochloric acid, mercury compounds, naphthalene, propylene, sulfuric acid, ammonia, and ethylene, to mention some.
Dr. Subra added a list with possible health impacts associated with the range of chemicals released into the air from petroleum refineries.
The long list includes wheezing, muscle aches and pains, sleep disturbances, memory loss, leukemia, lung cancer, cancers of liver and kidneys, asthma, skin rashes, skin irritation, decrease in vision, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer, brain cancer, and birth defects.
RGISC is also member of the STAR Coalition (South Texans Against the Refinery), which was formed to inform the community about the negative impact on the environment and health that a refinery can cause.
According to RGISC, in early February, Raven Petroleum announced the proposed refinery would use geothermal technology to become the cleanest refinery in the world.
“The basis for the geothermal announcement is a Memo of Understanding (MOU) between Raven and two Texas contractors, Houston-based BASIC Equipment and Austin-based Thermal Energy Partners. While there is currently no funding for the project and no permit application has been filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the MOU is an agreement that if the refinery were built, Thermal Energy Partners would build an on-site geothermal power station,” read a statement by RGISC.
Cortez said she was pleased Tijerina didn’t signed the MOU this week.
“That’s a terrific development,” Cortez told Rio Grande Guardian. “We are obviously very happy that our County Judge had taken the time to at least try to weigh these things more.”
While Raven Petroleum is promising additional tax revenue for Duval County, retail activity for Hebbronville, temporary construction jobs and permanent jobs, Cortez worries that there’s not even a guarantee the company will hire local residents.
“Just to be clear, I think all of us want prosperity, progress, and we all know there’s a need for rural areas to have better jobs, more economic activity, but you have to also waive that with the type of jobs and what are going to be the revenues,” Cortez said.
Tijerina said he could see financial benefits from landing a refinery.
“Do I see a good financial, economic development growth? Absolutely. But my constituents are the ones that are going to be affected, and I just want to make sure that they are not going to be affected, and if we are, how?” Tijerina said.
Earlier this week, Jim Hogg County Judge Humberto Gonzalez said Raven was planning to reach out to the community about the opportunities for future refinery workers and community small businesses.
Regarding environmentalist comments, Gonzalez said environmentalists need to read the literature the company has provided.
“What we have seen and the research that has been done, it shows that it’s going to be one of the safest refineries in the world, it’s the latest technology,” Gonzalez said. “As a community, we are ready for this and I think it’s going to be good for our community environmentally and it will be good for us economic development-wise.”
Duval County Judge Ricardo Carrillo said his commissioner’s court is open to questions about the Raven Petroleum project.
“I feel comfortable that after everybody has been heard and the permit process goes through, then we will proceed. I haven’t seen any negativity on this project,” Carrillo said. “I understand environmentalist have concerns and they have the right to be heard, and we will give them this opportunity.”
The STAR Coalition will have a second public meeting to talk about the South Texas Energy Complex on Tuesday, March 21, in the evening, with the location to be announced soon.