Refinery Accident Causes Brief Concerns at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Fire at refinery near San Antonio Missions.

Smoke from the explosion and fire near part of San Antonio Missions NHP. NPS photo.

It's been a tough week for the oil and gas industry, one which has held plenty of anxious moments for several NPS areas located in the vicinity of recent accidents. The latest involved an explosion at a refinery near San Antonio Missions National Historic Park; two of the historic structures were closed temporarily and precautionary measures were taken for possible contamination of important waterways.

The Texas incident Wednesday morning involved an ironic juxtaposition of two widely different cultures: an explosion at a modern-day facility that refines jet fuel resulted in the temporary closure of two of the oldest Spanish colonial missions in the country.

Late Wednesday morning, the AGE Refinery, located between Missions San Jose and San Juan in San Antonio, Texas, was rocked by an explosion and fire after a tanker truck reportedly exploded at a loading dock. The San Antonio fire and police departments quickly shut down access roads within a one-mile radius of the refinery. Two workers at the plant were injured, one critically.

AGE refines jet fuel and diesel and during the early stages of the incident, there were concerns the fire could ignite nearby fuel tanks holding hundreds of thousands of gallons of jet fuel. Aggressive work by a hundred fire fighters brought the fire under control in an effort that took six hours in 90-degree heat.

“This could have been a very tragic fire,” Fire Chief Charles Hood told the San Antonio Express-News. “If that jet fuel had caught on fire, we could have seen a major explosion big enough to kill people a half-mile away.”

Park officials immediately responded by closing Mission San Juan and Mission Espada, two of the four key historic sites in the park.

The park visitor center at Mission San Jose remained open during the incident, with park officials closely monitoring the situation due to the large cloud of smoke created by the fire. The fourth key site in the park, Mission Concepcion, was not affected. Park officials said the park staff were working closely with emergency hazmat teams to identify the locations of critical park resources located immediately adjacent to the refinery.

The missions in the park represent the largest intact concentration of Spanish Colonial buildings in the United States today, and date back to the mid-1700s. The San Juan acequia, an intact Spanish colonial irrigation system constructed in the 1740s, runs directly behind and adjacent to the AGE Refinery.

Booms were deployed to support containment systems to prevent chemicals from entering both the acequia and the nearby San Antonio River, but according to local media sources, city officials said on Thursday morning that there had been no contamination of either waterway.

A call to the park this morning confirmed that the park was open for business today, good news compared to the continuing uncertainly facing several NPS areas along the Gulf Coast.