If everything goes according to plan, the new MGC Pure Chemicals America plant will bring 28 new jobs to Killeen, 75 percent of which the company plans to hire from the area. Everything would run safely and smoothly, and this new plant, combined with Killeen’s close proximity to technology powerhouses in Austin, such as Samsung and Intel, could bring a number of other companies from the semiconductor industry to the city.
That could provide manufacturing jobs that could utilize the skills many soldiers obtained while stationed at Fort Hood, and provide livable wages. Eventually, maybe the semiconductor industry could become one of the dominant industries in the area.
“We need higher paying jobs, more manufacturing jobs, and this is what they look like,” said John Crutchfield, the executive director of the Killeen Economic Development Corporation. “Those are the jobs of the future, and they’re knowledge based. It’s a lot more than just this one little plant, it’s something that we can build.”
BUT, WHAT IF?
Residents haven’t found any comfort in the emergence of this type of industry in Killeen. In August, an Arkema company plant caught fire in Crosby in the Houston area. At that plant, organic peroxides used to make paint, plastics and other products caught fire and created fumes that first responders and residents said caused harm. The chemical compounds caught fire when power was knocked out during Hurricane Harvey, cutting off the refrigeration used to store the chemicals, according to news reports.
The worry is that something similar could happen in Killeen, if something goes wrong.
City Council members Shirley Fleming and Steve Harris hosted a community forum Thursday, at which Crutchfield, Killeen Fire Department Chief Brian Brank and Crutchfield’s guest, Stephen Minick, a former lobbyist and employee of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, were on hand to answer questions. The residents’ attitude toward the plan did not seem to have changed when the forum was over.
MGC has said the plant will create superpure hydrogen peroxide and have hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide on-site.
To create the superpure hydrogen peroxide, employees will take hydrogen peroxide and filter it over and over until it reaches its purest form. Whatever is discharged goes into the city’s wastewater stream, and the pH is adjusted to ensure it won’t negatively impact the city’s wastewater, according to a video published by MGC that was shown at Thursday’s forum.
A material safety data sheet, or MSDS, provided by Sciencelab.com identifies hydrogen peroxide as “very hazardous in case of skin contact, eye contact or ingestion.” It’s also slightly hazardous if inhaled, and though it is listed as nonflammable, hydrogen peroxide is “slightly explosive in presence of open flames and sparks of heat, of organic materials, of metals, of acids.”
Arkema, the company that owned the plant in Crosby that caught on fire, describes itself as the third-largest producer of hydrogen peroxide in the world on its website. In February, it was fined $110,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for “serious violations,” according to a report from CNBC.
On Thursday, Crutchfield insisted Arkema is very different from MGC.
“That was a French company, not a Japanese company; we don’t know what their quality standards are over there, and I doubt they are higher,” he said. “We get 6 feet of water on this plant we’ve got bigger problems than this plant.”
“I think what happened in Crosby is not anything like what is going to be built in Killeen, to be honest with you.”
The Harris County district attorney’s office told the Houston Chronicle on Friday it opened a criminal investigation into the Arkema plant. At least one lawsuit is underway, filed by first responders.
According to the MSDS, sulfuric acid is nonflammable, and not likely to combust. However, it will react with water or steam to produce toxic and corrosive fumes. Sodium hydroxide is “slightly explosive in the presence of heat.”
This is the company’s second American plant. The first is in Mesa, Arizona. That plant has had flawless inspection results with the U.S. Department of Transportation. MGC, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Gas Chemical Company Inc., also has facilities in Virginia, the Middle East and throughout Asia.
Crutchfield said the Mesa plant has never been found in violation of any regulations. An online search found the shipping division of MGC, based out of Queen Creek, Arizona, was fined $3,940 in 2006 for a violation of the hazardous materials regulations.
The problem was described on the Department of Transportation website as: “Filled and offered hydrogen peroxide, aqueous solution ... in intermediate bulk containers that had not been subjected to required periodic visual inspection and leak-proofness testing.”
KEPT IN THE DARK
An overwhelming number of residents present at Thursday’s forum were frustrated they did not learn about the plant until a deal was already finalized. Killeen EDC is not required to disclose information about business dealings to members of the council who are not on the Killeen EDC board of directors, according to the contract KEDC signed with the city. Mayor Jose Segarra, Councilwoman Debbie Nash-King and Councilman Juan Rivera are on the KEDC board.
The reason for the secrecy, according to Crutchfield, was because MGC Pure Chemicals America required confidentiality for the deal to go through. That was to ensure the cost stays low and other companies do not become privy to any business dealings.
“I will also tell you that there’s a time value to money. And when these fellas want to go into production, they want to go into production. They want don’t want to deal with public elections,” Crutchfield said. “This is no different from the way it works in any other community in America. You may not like that, but that’s the way it works.”
Residents didn’t like that. Kathryn Bradley attends the nearby Killeen Seventh-day Adventist Church on Rancier Avenue with many senior citizens who live in the area. Mae West Lane said she lives just across the train tracks, and demanded an answer as to why she was not informed.
“I should have been given some type of notice,” Lane said.
WHAT WE KNOW
When it was all said and done, Harris said, residents at the meeting had many of their questions answered. It just might not have been the answers they were looking for.
“Based on the questions I heard last night, I don’t think the majority of citizens who came in uncomfortable with (the plant) are any more comfortable with it after they came in. ... I saw citizens’ frustrations as the answers were drawn out.”
Fleming was pleased so many residents showed up and made their voices known. She said the meeting was successful, but that doesn’t mean all the problems were solved.
“I don’t think that Mr. Crutchfield answered the questions the way he should have. ... I don’t think he did it justice,” she said. “I’d like to see him be more transparent, even though I know there’s a contract they have to go through. ... They need to come out and let the public know what’s going on.”
Residents did receive some answers. They found out why the news was kept quiet, and what the Arizona plant’s safety record was. They learned from Brank what type of precautions would be put into place to respond to a potential fire, and about the process of creating the superpure hydrogen peroxide.
Crutchfield also said MGC can pull out of the deal at any point. It is not bound to opening a plant in Killeen. One man asked if the Killeen EDC would monitor MGC to ensure it holds up its end of the bargain to hire local employees. Crutchfield said there are no written stipulations to require 75 percent of employees to be locals, and if qualified candidates cannot be found within the greater Killeen area, MGC will be forced to look elsewhere.
Left unanswered were specifics about safety. Though Crutchfield and Minick provided the safety record of MGC Pure Chemicals and distinguished differences between the plant to be erected in Killeen and the one ablaze in Crosby, the likelihood of an accident was not addressed.
Because a contract was signed, the Killeen EDC is set to go forward with the plant unless MGC backs out, according to Segarra.
He and the rest of the Killeen EDC board didn’t foresee this type of reaction among residents, he said, and the original thought was that this move could help attract other semiconductor industries to the city. Now, the Killeen EDC is going to think long and hard before recruiting a similar company.
“We were excited about it; now it gives us something to think about it for next time. We didn’t see any hazards or anything like that with a chemical plant. We were like ‘wow that’s great,’ and since we were competitive with other cities, we were just elated that we had beaten other cities and we thought this would go over real well,” Segarra said. “Yeah, we didn’t anticipate this, and that was our fault. But now we know.”
Background on the proposed MGC Pure Chemicals America plant in Killeen:
Aug. 2: The Killeen Economic Development Corporation signed a performance agreement with MGC Pure Chemicals America, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Gas Chemical Company, Inc. based in Tokyo, Japan. The two parties had been in secret negotiations leading up to the contract.
Aug. 9: KEDC sends a news release saying: MGC selected Killeen for a manufacturing plant that will service the semiconductor industry. The facility is expected to start production in 2019 and will produce super-pure hydrogen peroxide, a cleaning chemical used in the semiconductor industry for applications that require stripping, etching, and cleaning of silicon wafers.
Aug. 30: The Killeen Economic Development Corporation and MGC hold a private groundbreaking ceremony at the Killeen Business Park. The public and media were not invited.
August/September: Residents continue to seek answers, peppering their City Council representatives with answers. Only three council members, who serve on the KEDC board, were aware of the plant. Most were not informed, creating problems when constituents sought answers.
Sept. 28: Council members Shirley Fleming and Steve Harris hold a forum for the public to ask questions of the company and KEDC. The company doesn’t send a representative. KEDC fields questions but leaves some questions unanswered.
KEDC agreed to provide more than $1.78 million to MGC if it meets performance standards. If MGC wishes to expand, KEDC will give it up to 15.758 additional acres, worth $577,026.
KEDC initially has offered MGC:
$540,144 in 12.4 acres of land
Up to $486,000 in reimbursements for property tax payments
Up to $500,000 in infrastructure improvements
Up to $224,000 for job creation
About $20,000 in permitting fees, unless the city waives the fees
Up to $10,000 in closing costs
Unspecified amount for the cost of subdividing the site.
Residents did their homework and had additional questions for the Killeen Economic Development Corporation about its agreement with MGC to bring a chemical plant to the city. More than 100 residents attended the Thursday community meeting, sponsored by City Council members Shirley Fleming and Steve Harris. Harris and Fleming, along with residents, learned of the agreement after it was signed by KEDC and MGC.
“The only thing separating me from your proposed building site is a railroad track and a few trees. Why wasn’t I informed that this place was being built? I should have been given some kind of notice.”
“If the residents of Killeen do not want this plant, what are the citizens’ rights in this matter?”
Emmett Hohensee spoke at the meeting and referenced Killeen’s years of deficit spending: “It seems like this is all about money, not what the people want, and truthfully, Killeen doesn’t have too good of a record of keeping track of its money, and is this what we really want?”
Vivian Perry: “If you would’ve offered some of the incentives to the other companies that you’ve offered to the chemical company, would we have more businesses?”
Margaret Tucker attended the meeting: “I understand there is going to be a rail spur involved? I want to know how big the rail spur will be and how it will impact the neighborhoods in that area.”
Gary Carraway also attended the meeting: “I think the community is very concerned about the hazard coming from your chemical. I think if you would be a little bit more forthcoming and say ‘These are the human health hazards’ we’d be a little bit more secure.”
Bettie McIntyre of Killeen, who was at the meeting, said the long-term effects were unclear.
“It worries me. They are not telling us anything.”
One of Ursula Brown’s concerns was the plant’s water usage:
“What about drought?”
Thomas Penn of Killeen attended the meeting. Penn compared the benefits and risks to squeezing an orange: “The juice is not worth it, when you hire 28 people, for the danger. “Looks like we bought a pig in the bag.”
Kathryn Bradley goes to a church near the park and noted that some senior citizens live on Twin Creek Drive outside the park.
“We want safety in this town. And there must be some other things that we can get in this town that won’t create hazards to our health.”
Richard Youngerman couldn’t attend but sent an email in favor of the plant: “I have lived in Killeen for over 30 years and every time an industry wants to come in to Killeen, the City Council wants to stop it from coming in. This would bring jobs in to Killeen. I live less than a mile from where the plant is going.”