San Antonio – It's been operating inside city limits since the 1970's but most people didn't take notice of the city's only oil refinery until recent years when numerous fires, spills and accidents raised concerns.
According to previous news reports from KSAT 12 News, 2014 was a year that was full of problems for the new owners of the South side oil refinery located on South Presa that has seen it's share of trouble over the years.
In March of that year, a jet fuel spill leaked into a creek that feeds into the San Antonio River, forcing paddling trails to close on the mission reach of the Riverwalk. Then in April another spill, this time 11-hundred gallons of oil spilled, about 100 gallons reached the San Antonio River. In September a fire shut down South Presa while fire crews put out the flames.
Then in December 2015 another small fire broke out at the plant.
All of the incidents happened under the watch of Calumet Specialty Products, which bought the refinery in 2013. Despite those accidents, the management team at the refinery said they've pumped tens of millions of dollars into the facility to make it safer.
"This is an industry that is hazardous but it doesn't have to be dangerous," said refinery manager Mike Milam. "We have a lot of smart people who are committed and a lot of technology so we mitigate those hazards."
Milam said he's made transforming the safety culture for his 105 employees at the plant a top priority.
"The commitment to safety is much stronger than it was under the former owner," Milam said. "The former owner was not very public, not very transparent, we're probably close to totally transparent."
In the past four years Milam said Calumet has pumped roughly 100 million dollars into the refinery to upgrade the aging facility and improve safety. That's on top of the money the previous owners had put into it after purchasing the refinery out of bankruptcy.
"I'd say overall, and there's probably been over 150 million spent, I'd say probably half of that was for equipment replacement or things you would consider to be safety and the other half of that on modernization and true expansion," Milam said. "Really this is almost a major transformation. There's some existing equipment but a lot of it has been changed out, torn down, replaced. Everything has been inspected that was left in place."
From updated fire suppression to increased containment and improved training, automation and modernization have made the refinery a safer place according to Milam.
"We tend to think in terms of modernization and expansion but in the course of doing that a lot of the money goes to safety upgrades and the replacement of worn out equipment," Milam said. "In most cases we have several layers of protection and in many cases we have automation, automatic shut-offs, and monitoring devices. As a matter of fact, in most cases there's probably 5 or 6 layers of protection so all those layers would have to fail before you have an incident. So a failure of any one layer of protection is not going to be catastrophic."
Damon Shodrock is a safety supervisor he said automated fueling procedures and cameras that can spot vapors leaking from tankers and trigger sprinklers would make it difficult for another fire to happen like the one that happened in 2010 that seriously injured a driver when his tanker burst into flames during fueling.
"This is the modern way to operate a truck loading rack and refinery," Shodrock said.
All the changes have helped increase and expand production, going from 12 thousand to 20,000 barrels per day.
Milam said roughly 12 percent of all gasoline bought in San Antonio comes from the plant.
But that's not all they're making, the company produces a variety of fuels and solvents, everything from jet fuel to charcoal lighter fluid and lubricants. All of it made from oil that's piped up directly from the Eagle Ford Shale in Karnes County.
As the company has expanded so has it's need for on-sight storage of the products it produces. More storage means an increased chance for leaks and spills so the company expanded it's containment areas around those new tanks.
"And so this whole area, should we have a spill from any of these tanks, it will contain the contents of the largest tank, plus a certain amount of rain water," Shodrock said. "This contains any lost product and then we can vacuum that out, recover it, put it back in our crude tank and run it through the refinery."
The company also leveled the rail car loading area where one of the leaks occurred in 2014 and rebuilt it from the ground up adding a catwalk for workers with emergency eye wash and shower stations and a concrete containment area to catch spills.
"So if we lose an entire rail car here it's basically going to stay on this concrete slab plus any rain that we have in the area, so that's going to contain it," Shodrock said. "We have a sump that's in the bottom of it so we can pump that out and reclaim it."
The refinery even has it's own emergency response team.
"We have 20 trained volunteer employees that are able to respond at any given time," Milam said. "We have our own fire fighting equipment so we catch a problem at it's incipient stage before it gets further along. We have done that the 2 or 3 times we've had a problem, gotten it headed off in a matter of minutes."
Shodrock believes the changes make the refinery a better neighbor to the surrounding community and a better place to work.
"I come here and work safe every day," Shodrock said. "My family expects that and all of our employees and contractors who work here have that same expectation."