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Massive fire threatens Philadelphia refinery’s future

Published: Updated:

A massive fire at Philadelphia Energy Solutions Inc’s oil refinery on Friday damaged the largest US East Coast plant to the point that it could remain shut for an extended period, according to Philadelphia city officials and company sources.

Philadelphia fire officials said several explosions sent a huge fireball into the sky, engulfing the surrounding areas in smoke after 4 a.m. EDT (0800 GMT), following the ignition of a fire that started in a butane vat at the 335,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) refining complex, also the oldest in the Northeast.

By mid-afternoon, the city’s fire department was working with PES in its response to the fire, though it was letting the flammable gases burn under control. PES said in a statement it believed the product that was burning was “mostly propane.”

Four workers were injured, according to a company statement, and treated on-site, while city emergency workers treated one person, who did not need to go to the hospital. The extent of the damage was unknown, but similar fires have shut refineries for months or years.

“It was the worst I’ve ever experienced,” said a veteran refinery worker who was at the plant when the fire broke out.

“It looked like a nuclear bomb went off. I thought we were all going to die.”

The complex was still running at a reduced rate, PES said, but depending on the extent of the damage, there will be questions as to whether the company has enough money to rebuild.

Friday’s incident comes just after a June 10 fire at the same refinery, which according to a source familiar with operations, affected a 50,000 bpd catalytic cracking unit.

PES said in its statement that there were three explosions at the refinery, which affected an alkylation unit.

A source familiar with plant operations said one explosion occurred at a 30,000 bpd alkylation unit that uses hydrofluoric acid, one of the deadliest chemicals in the refining business and a source of controversy for its use to make high-octane gasoline at plants in densely populated areas.

City health officials said there is no immediate danger to the surrounding community. Preliminary testing at the refinery and the adjacent community showed no ambient carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons (combustibles), or hydrogen sulfide, said Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesman James Garrow in a statement.

In the past, refinery workers have called for refineries to stop using hydrofluoric acid because of the harm it can do to the eyes, skin and lungs when released into the atmosphere following explosions.

The US Chemical Safety Board, a non-regulatory federal agency that investigates such incidents, is sending a four-person team to look into the explosion. It has in the past advocated refineries stop using hydrofluoric acid in refining processes.

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