HOUSTON BP Plc's 475,000 barrel per day (bpd) refinery in Texas City, Texas, lost power at about 10:55 p.m. local time Monday (0355 GMT Tuesday), frightening local residents who were ordered inside to avoid breathing smoke from the refinery's flares.
"There was like a lightning flash back where the plants are," said Jennifer Reynolds, who lives about 2 miles from the BP refinery. "The sky lit up from the flares. My lungs are burning. It smells awful."
A BP spokesman said no injuries had been reported due to the power outage, which also knocked out electricity at BP's adjoining chemical plant. The cause of the outage was unknown.
BP "immediately called the city and declared a level 3 emergency," said BP spokesman Michael Marr in a statement. "The city declared a shelter-in-place for its residents."
The Galveston County Daily News reported on its website that the Dow Chemical Co plant in Texas City was also suffering electrical power problems early Tuesday.
Flares are used to burn of hydrocarbons that can't be processed normally in a refinery's production units. Burning off the material in the flares prevents potentially deadly explosions. When in use, the flares can be very loud and produce heavy black smoke.
Another resident posted on his website hearing what sounded like persistent rumbling from the direction of the refinery after receiving an automated message from Texas City's Emergency Management Office warning residents to remain indoors with their air conditioners off.
BP's Texas City refinery, the nation's third largest, reported electrical power upsets in March and April prior to Monday night's power failure.
In February, BP said by the end of 2012 it would sell the refinery, which was the site of a deadly explosion in 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured 180 others.
The refinery faces continued scrutiny from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to correct problems found after the 2005 explosion.
In August, BP paid a record $50.6 million fine to settle alleged safety violations found by OSHA.
That settlement came at the same time BP was under intense criticism for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon platform explosion which killed 11 workers and sent near 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico .
The London-based energy company is working resolve another $30.7 million in fines sought by the federal work safety agency for alleged safety violations at the refinery.
BP has promised to spend $500 million between 2010 and 2016 to improve safety at the refinery.
The Texas Attorney General has sued BP for pollution from the refinery during a 40-day release in April and May of 2010 that sent 500,000 pounds of pollutants into the air. The release is the subject of a $10-billion federal class-action lawsuit brought by refinery workers and Texas City residents.
(Editing by Jason Neely)