“Accelerated chemical corrosion” has reportedly unleashed devastating damage to a new $300 million unit at the U.S.’s largest refinery, shutting down the facility indefinitely.
Co-owned by Saudi Aramco and Royal Dutch Shell, the Motiva Enterprises refinery in Port Arthur, TX, just completed a five-year, $10 billion expansion that more than doubled production capacity and made the refinery the largest in the United States.
|A new $300 million Crude Distillation Unit, the first step in the refining process, made the Motiva refinery the largest one in the United States. Repairs may cost even more.|
The expansion also ran $5 billion over budget and was completed two years behind schedule.
Two days after a grand opening ceremony May 31, a small leak was discovered in the new Crude Distillation Unit (CDU), a 30-story-high network of pipes and cylinders that is the first step in the refining process. One week after that, fire broke out.
The corrosion was discovered only after two fires broke out as the unit was being started up at 10:30 a.m. June 9. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported “uncontrolled combustion” within the unit’s furnace but said steam had been added to furnace boxes and the unit was stabilized.
“They had the first fire, and then they had the second one 20 feet away,” a source told Reuters News Service, which has been investigating problems at the plant. “They knew they had a problem.”
The owners have said little about the shutdown and confirmed the fire only after 11 days.
Shell said only that the shutdown “may continue for several months, while the causes of the issue are established and rectified.”
Bloomberg News also reported that some of the 700 miles of new pipes were cracked and that an attempt to restart the unit was abandoned June 11.
Reports estimated that the shutdown could continue for a year.
The shutdown affects only the new part of the facility, which refines 325,000 barrels a day. The plant’s original operation, which processes 285,000 barrels a day, is unaffected, but Saudi Arabia has halted all crude shipments to the facility, reports said.
‘Devastating Agent of Corrosion’
According to Reuters’ investigation, the damage occurred as workers were repairing a minor leak that was discovered June 2. To perform the repairs, the unit was taken out of production but not shut down, because allowing it to go cold would have lengthened the restart time, officials said.
During the week that repairs were carried out, however, “a few gallons a day of so-called ‘caustic’” inadvertently seeped into the warm unit. After the repair, unaware of the caustic leak, the unit was brought back up to high heat.
“While harmless when mixed with crude, the undiluted caustic vaporized into an invisible but devastating agent of corrosion as the chamber heated up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit (370 Celsius),” according to Reuters.
“The chemical gas raced through key units, fouled huge heaters, and corroded thousands of feet of stainless steel pipe.”
Mobilizing for Repairs
Motiva spokeswoman Kayla Macke confirmed to Reuters on Friday (June 22) that “preliminary inspection indicates that parts of the new unit have been contaminated with elevated levels of caustic.”
The result is most likely accelerated chemical corrosion from the unit’s intense heat. The extent of the damage is still not known, as portions of the unit remain too hot to enter and may not be accessible for weeks, sources told Reuters.
Now, Reuters says, repairs may cost more than the unit’s original cost. Facility owners are flying in corrosion experts “from across the world,” and “hundreds of workers are being hired,” the news agency reported.
Bechtel and Jacobs Engineering were the main contractors for the project.
In addition to the hundreds of miles of specialized pipe, the new facility has dozens of heat exchangers and delicate instrumentation, some of which is known to be damaged, sources told Reuters.
“We have the worst-case scenario,” one source said. “Extensive damage throughout the crude unit. All of it.”