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The day after Valero blast

Feb 17, 2007 |

A day after a fire and explosion crippled Valero's McKee refinery here, only official-looking vehicles buzzed past plant barriers set up by Texas Department of Public Safety troopers manning vehicles with flashing lights.

But Friday's blast at the 170,000-barrel-a-day plant, which Valero shut down, was the talk of the town.

Jim and Linda White, who were working their cattle and wheat farm just six miles away from the Texas Panhandle plant, said they knew some of the workers who were injured. The fire, which began at about 2 p.m., sent 19 workers to area hospitals, including three to a burn center at University Medical Center in Lubbock.

The condition of two of the Valero Energy Corp. workers at the burn center was upgraded to satisfactory Saturday morning, while one remained in critical condition, a nursing supervisor said.

Jim White was on his property Friday afternoon when he thought he saw a fire before he heard the boom of an explosion at the plant.

"Right before dark, the smoke was just pure black," he said.

Linda White said her mother told her the blast shook windows at her house on the other side of Dumas, about 10 miles from the refinery.

As the Whites finished some farm work Saturday, a few vehicles headed down FM 119 toward the plant, which sits on a pancake-flat expanse of yellow High Plains grass.

A few times, the refinery's stacks sent plumes of dark smoke, and at other times, smoke drifted up from what appeared to be smoldering material.

Paul Jenkins, Dumas County fire chief, said Valero had extinguished the blaze by Saturday morning, but he said some smoldering was evident.

Officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency were among the plant's visitors Saturday. They "stated that they were satisfied with the refinery's response and have left the site," Valero spokeswoman Mary Rose Brown said in an e-mailed statement.

Officials from Occupational Safety and Hazards Administration remained at the plant, she said, while a team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board was to arrive late Saturday, she said.

The company said the fire started at the refinery's propane de-asphalting unit, where fuel is processed at high temperatures. The cause is under investigation, and Brown said initial reports "show that the damage to the refinery was largely confined" to the propane unit and nearby pipes.

"We do not yet know the full extent of the damage, the required repair time or the estimated production impact," Brown said.

But employees' paychecks will keep coming.

"Pay and benefits will continue uninterrupted," Brown said, adding that supervisors will advise employees on when to return to work.

In addition, Valero is in the process of building a kitchen and cafeteria to support workers who will rebuild the refinery. The company is putting up a massive tent that will serve as the dining hall, and food and drink is on its way, she said.

The last two of 10 workers who were treated for smoke inhalation at Moore County Hospital in Dumas were released Saturday, CEO Theron Park said.

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