Monday AM Update From Delaware News Journal
UPDATE: 3 A.M. MONDAY – Delaware City residents have reported hearing loud horns and rumbling from the refinery.
One resident called DNREC and was told the fire is ongoing and flaring is happening, according to Facebook.
During flaring, there may be loud rumbling sounds, according to multiple refineries’ websites.
Flaring is used to safely burn excess hydrocarbon gases that cannot be recovered or recycled, according to ExxonMobile. Excess gases are combined with steam and/or air, and burnt off in the flare system to produce water vapour and carbon dioxide.
On Facebook, one resident said the last time they heard rumbling from the refinery was during a power outage.
An outage in 2016 was accompanied by flaring and a chemical release, according to a story by The News Journal.
Refinery flares act as safety valves, allowing operators to quickly shut down processing and reduce pressure in complex systems during emergencies. But that burning does not incinerate all chemical emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2000 that some plants could send up to 100 tons of sulfur dioxide daily into the air during uncontrolled flaring of sulfur-rich, acid gas from operations.
No one at the Delaware City Refinery was injured in a large fire that started about noon Sunday and took almost five hours to get under control, a company representative said.
One firefighter was treated for an unrelated medical issue, the refinery said.
Jamie Bethard, an environmental program manager with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said the agency would be working with the refinery to figure out how the fire started.
“As of right now, based on what DNREC is saying, there are no environmental issues,” said state Sen. Nicole Poore, who represents Delaware City and the surrounding area.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be an impact over the long term, she said.
DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti said the following in an email: “DNREC’s Emergency Prevention and Response Section is monitoring air quality both onsite at the Delaware City refinery and in surrounding areas, while New Castle County and refinery firefighting resources work to control the fire.”
The fire was localized and subdued by 6 p.m., according to DNREC’s Emergency Prevention and Response Section.
“DNREC air monitors up to 6 miles away from the refinery at the height of the fire were getting ‘non-detect’ reading for hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide – the pollutants of greatest concern, given where the fire originated (the crude unit) and what was fueling it,” Globetti said in an email.
Some Delaware City residents got robocalls on their landlines letting them know about the fire Sunday afternoon. They were told that DNREC was onsite monitoring air quality, but that it didn’t pose an immediate threat to the environment.
Poore spent part of the day with Delaware City Mayor Stanley Green and received regular updates on the fire. Green had been on site, she said, and was communicating with local firefighters and police.
They got word from DNREC that the fire had been put out shortly before 5 p.m. Later, they found out that was false, though the fire had been largely contained and nearby roads had been reopened.
Lisa Lindsey, the public information officer for the refinery, which is owned by a subsidiary PFB Energy, said the fire was in the “crude unit,” which distills crude oil into various fractions before further processing.
Smoke and flames can be seen from a distance at the Delaware City Refinery on Sunday. John J. Jankowski Jr., Special to The News Journal
“Crews responded immediately and everyone who was working on the unit is safe, accounted for, and there are no injuries,” she said in an email. “The refinery notified appropriate agencies and officials.”
Little guidance on smoke
DNREC did not tweet or release information about the fire and resulting air quality until after 4 p.m. and even then, only said that it was monitoring the situation.
Amy Roe, a longtime environmental advocate from Newark who also belongs to the Delaware City Environmental Coalition, said that the lack of information was “shameful,” especially since so many residents voiced concern over the thick, noxious smoke.
“Crude oil smoke is not the kind of thing you want to inhale,” she said, wondering what impact it could have on people with asthma, bronchial issues or who are pregnant.
She personally had a headache from the smell.
Roe said the way the incident was handled reminded her of an ethylene oxide leak at Croda’s chemical manufacturing plant near the Delaware Memorial Bridge on Nov. 25, exactly 10 weeks ago.
After the leak, community members questioned whether enough was done to alert the public. Roe said there wasn’t. And she doesn’t think there was enough done this Sunday, either.
“I see that as a tremendous problem,” she said. “No improvements have been made.”
Crude oil is a mix of thousands of different chemicals, but it is mostly hydrogen and carbon, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
If you inhale oil vapors, or smoke from burning oil, move to an area where the air is more clear, the federal agency advises. If you have inhaled a lot of vapor or smoke and feel short of breath, have chest pain or tightness, or dizziness, seek medical attention.
The wind on Sunday was blowing the smoke to the northwest and nearby fire companies received complaints from residents about the smell of chemicals in the air as far away as Newark and Wilmington.
People living in Bear and Glasgow said it smelled like burning rubber. During a livestream of the scene, several asked The News Journal if it was safe to breathe or if they should go inside.
A fire burns at the Delaware City Refinery on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Delaware Department of Transportation
Before the fire began, DNREC had already issued a “code orange” air quality alert for Delaware.
Code Orange means that air pollution concentrations within the region may become unhealthy for sensitive groups such as children, seniors and people suffering from heart disease, asthma or other lung diseases.
People who are at risk are urged to minimize strenuous activity or exercise outdoors.
“We already know the air is bad today, and we made it a whole lot worse,” Roe said.
Not the first fire
This is not the first fire at the refinery. In 2017, a federal safety board ruled that the Delaware City Refining Co. failed to take adequate precautions to prevent a 2015 flash fire that seriously injured one of its workers.
A 62-year-old night-shift operator suffered two second-degree burns to his face and neck, along with third-degree burns to his wrists.
As a result of the incident, Delaware City Refinery Co. “revised certain operating procedures associated with equipment maintenance to address the unusual circumstances that led to the incident,” said Michael Karlovich, a spokesman for refinery owner PBF Energy.
That was one of three major incidents at the refinery that year.
An Aug. 21 fire destroyed a building and equipment at the facility, and a chemical release one week later sent three workers to the hospital.
More recently, in October 2018, three contractors were burned by a “heated product.”
The incident was originally misreported as an explosion, but PBF Energy contested that description.
Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal Robert Fox retracted his initial analysis and said: “Further investigation revealed that what was originally described as an explosion was actually a release of heated product under pressure.”
Contact Jessica Bies at (302) 324-2881 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jessicajbies.
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