Hurricane-Struck Oil Refinery Restarts

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Valero oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas

This Valero oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas is producing gasoline again, three weeks after heavy damage by Hurricane Rita. Scott Horsley, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Scott Horsley, NPR

Three weeks after Hurricane Rita ripped through Port Arthur, Texas, the Valero oil refinery is making gasoline again. The storm knocked out the refinery's power and scattered its workforce. Two other refineries in the Port Arthur area remain closed, and three in Louisiana, damaged during Katrina, are still shut down. The ongoing shortage of refining capacity is keeping oil prices high.


In Port Arthur, Texas, the Valero oil refinery is making gas again, three weeks after Hurricane Rita ripped through the area. The storm knocked out the refinery's power and scattered its work force. It took long hours, improvisation and a bit of homemade gumbo to get the plant up and running again. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

For Jim Gillingham, Rita was a rude introduction to Port Arthur. He'd taken over as general manager of the refinery just a few weeks earlier when Valero bought out the plant's previous owner Premcor.

Mr. JIM GILLINGHAM (General Manager, Valero): We took over on September 1st and then September 22nd, we had a hurricane. And we've been working with it ever since--kind of night and day.

HORSLEY: Gillingham and a team of core employees rode out Hurricane Rita 90 miles north of the plant. As soon as the winds died down, they returned to Port Arthur to survey the damage. Although they found the refinery under a foot or more of water, that was actually less flooding than they'd feared. The biggest challenge was restarting on-site generators, which had never before been shut down.

Mr. GILLINGHAM: Normally, those machines that generate the power are running all the time. This was a unique event that we shut these machines down and walked away from them. They got cold, they got wet, they were not being attended. So we didn't really know how quickly we would be able to restart those machines. It was more difficult than we thought.

HORSLEY: Gillingham and others immediately went to work lining up repair crews and locating employees. With much of the surrounding area unlivable, workers had to be housed and fed on site.

Mr. GILLINGHAM: We started with home cooking, people got stuff out of their freezers and we barbecued and made gumbo here in the refinery in the first couple of days. Then we got a catering service in, a small one at first, staffed by Valero volunteers. And then as the number of people in the plant ramped up, we brought in a second kitchen, and we really got over onto a more commercial catering service.

(Soundbite of cash register operation)

HORSLEY: Gillingham offers a driving tour of the temporary city that's grown up inside the refinery's gates with air-conditioned trailers, portable showers and a dining tent that seats 500.

Mr. GILLINGHAM: You can see we have water tanks set up and barbecue cookers, then a lot of other trucks, refrigerator trucks. We were going through 3 or 4,000 bags of ice a day. Of course, when you've got 1,700 people working in 100-degree, 100 percent humidity heat, they drink a lot of stuff.

HORSLEY: Valero's initial forecast was that it would take two to four weeks to get the refinery up and running. Sure enough, three weeks to the day after Rita struck, the plant is churning out gasoline at a rate of more than five million gallons a day. Two other refineries in the Port Arthur area are still shut down because of Rita, and three in Louisiana remain closed on account of Katrina. The ongoing shortage of refining capacity is keeping prices high, so Valero stands to profit handsomely from its plant's speedy recovery. As the nation's largest refiner, Valero has been betting on a supply crunch, which is why it's buying older refineries like this one. Veteran employee Gary Byrd(ph) says it's quite a turn-around from a decade ago when then owner Chevron was ready to close this refinery.

Mr. GARY BYRD (Veteran Employee): I've been here 34 years. There are a large number of employees that's been here at least 25 years. Valero showed us what they were capable of doing and what they would do as far as giving us support. And I think the employees showed them their appreciation by getting this refinery up in a record time.

HORSLEY: Byrd says the hurricane was also a reminder to refinery workers, if they needed on, of just how important their work is. Some drivers now recognize that as well. Filling her tank at a nearby Valero station, Tina Vaccara(ph) says even at today's high prices, she's grateful just to have the gas.

Ms. TINA VACCARA (Gas Customer): Like they say: You don't know what you have till it's gone, and you just take it for granted having everything, and all of a sudden you don't have the conveniences that you normally have, and it's, like, whoa, you know. So it's scary.

HORSLEY: General manager Gillingham says even when all the refineries knocked out by the hurricanes are back on line, the country will still have trouble keeping up with demand for gasoline. Valero is planning an expansion of its Port Arthur refinery. That should be finished next spring. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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