Wharton County commissioners are expected to take a vote on Monday regarding tax abatements for a proposed refinery near El Campo.

The commissioners are scheduled to go into executive session during their meeting Monday at 9:30 a.m. at the county annex building to discuss possible tax abatements for Southern Rock Energy Partners. After the executive session they have an agenda item for taking appropriate action regarding the abatement for the proposed refinery.

The commissioners met with Southern Rock Energy Partners officials in a special meeting on Dec. 2, also in executive session, to discuss proposed tax abatements. Afterward the commissioners court authorized the county attorney to negotiate with company officials.

During public discussion, many area officials spoke in favor of the refinery. No one opposed it.

Southern Rock Energy Partners plans to build a $3 billion clean energy refinery that would create more than 400 high-paying jobs. The company is headed by former El Campo City Councilmember Steve Ward. 

In a commentary published in the Wharton Journal-Spectator and El Campo Leader-News, Ward provided an overview of the proposed refinery.

“The Southern Rock Energy Partners refinery will process light, sweet crude and shale crude, encompass 400 acres, consume 90% less water with 80% recycled and repurposed, and will eliminate at least 95% of emissions,” he said.

“The refinery design reduces or eliminates the typical odors, sulfur and methane, associated with a traditional refinery. Light, sweet shale crude contains minimal amounts of sulfur compared to heavy, sour crude. The processing units do not consume natural gas thus eliminating the combustion of methane and produces warm water vapors instead of carbon dioxide. The processed waste water uses microbes to eliminate contaminates generated during the refining process.

“Lastly, the flare, which is typically utilized to combust off gases and in emergencies, is smokeless and hidden from view in a containment area similar to a storage tank and will be used sparingly. The refinery design will maintain the attainment status for air quality in Wharton County,” Ward said.

County Judge Phillip Spenrath said the county has made a good faith offer of abatements, but noted there are still many questions that need to be answered.

“To be clear, the county is very interested in bringing these 400 jobs to Wharton County and we have already made a good faith offer several weeks ago,” he said. “With that said, there are questions that need to be answered and an array of local public concerns that need to be addressed.

“We do not know who any of the major partners are in this project. We have no idea of who will be providing the $3.4 billion in financial backing to bring about construction. My office has been contacted by neighboring landowners and businesses who are clearly opposed to the project.  We have heard support from board representatives with Louise ISD but no one has shared actual numbers or the extent of incentives. We are told the hospital district, junior college, and ESD’s are on board but again no one has shared financial numbers.

“My office has reached out to the State Comptroller’s Office concerning potential school district 313 agreements and the Governor’s Office concerning potential funding support from the Texas Enterprise Fund. None of the representatives contacted were familiar with the project,” he said.

COVID-19 policy

Also on the agenda for Monday’s meeting are three agenda items related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those items allow the county to offer employees up to one week of sick time due to COVID-19 under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Full-time employees would get 40 hours and part-time employees would get time adjusted by the number of hours a week they work.

The action is retroactive to the start of the FFCRA on March 30, 2020. To qualify for the time off under the act, the employee must be experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis.

Another agenda item is related, as it sets return-to-work guidelines from employees who receive a positive COVID-19 test.

“In order for the employee to return to work after a positive COVID-19 test result, the employee must document that they have been symptom-free for 24 hours and that five days have elapsed since their first symptoms started,” the policy states. “Example, an employee started showing symptoms on Jan. 1, 2022, so the fifth day would be Jan. 5, 2022, and if the employee has been showing no symptoms for 24 hours then the employee is eligible to come back to work on Jan. 6. Additionally, the employee is mandated to wear a mask for an additional five days,”

A third item on the agenda “provide(s) update and take all appropriate action for county offices to respond to COVID-19 related situations.

“Wharton County continues to experience a sharp spike in the number of local COVID-19 related illnesses,” Spenrath said. “Our county and city offices of emergency management continue working closely together to organize more free local testing and vaccination opportunities throughout the county.”

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