Explosions, Fire Erupt at Philly Refinery


A fire broke out early in the morning last Friday (June 21) at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex—a crude oil refinery in South Philadelphia. It was the result of several explosions.

According to local news reports, the blast could be felt in as far as South Jersey and Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

What Happened

Around 4 a.m. on Friday an explosion occurred at the PES refinery, followed by two additional explosions, ultimately ensuing a massive fire. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the fireball that resulted from the explosions was captured by a weather satellite in space due to the incident's intense heat.

Located within what was previously a Gulf Oil Corp. refinery was the impacted unit, which produces alkylate (a booster used for gasoline octane). (PES is a 150-year-old company combination of the Gulf and Atlantic Reining Co. campuses.) Although the complex has two alkylation units, the affected unit uses a deadly chemical, hydrogen fluoride, as a catalyst.

Officials have since gone on record to say that none of the chemicals were released in Friday’s explosion.

According to Philadelphia Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy, the general vat area­—where the fire had been burning—contained propane and butane, which was being fed by a main source. With PES unable to gain access to the proper valve to shut off the continuously burning gases, PES firefighting teams and the Philadelphia Fire Deptartment decided to confine and contain the blaze.

"It is safer if it burns itself out," Murphy said, adding that, “whatever's blowing out of the main blows right into the atmosphere."

Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel also noted that it "is standard practice when fighting a fire of this type to let the flammable gases burn away in a controlled fashion."

Over the course of Friday and Saturday, until PES teams could successfully shut off the main, crews continued to pour water on nearby pipes and tanks to keep them cool. Officials reported on Sunday that the fire had been effectively extinguished by Saturday afternoon.

As a result of the incident, five refinery workers suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene. Neighboring residents were also advised to shelter in place until officials reported that tests for 61 chemicals determined safe air quality, which took place only a few hours after the blasts.

Philadelphia Fire Department spokesperson Kathy Matheson added that this was the second fire to occur at the plant this month. However, the June 10 fire appeared to be smaller and was “quickly contained and safely extinguished.” CNN also reported that the two fires were unrelated in nature and cause, according to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.

Investigation Launched

While ABC’s Channel 6 Action News reported on Monday that the fire department’s hazmat unit and public health department were continuing to monitor the air quality every two to three hours, an investigation of the incident had also been launched.

At this time, no health threats have been issued regarding air quality, but according to federal data, the refinery has long been the biggest releaser of chemicals in Philadelphia.

The fire’s cause and origin are being investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board; and the fire marshal's office.

PES spokesperson Cherice Corley told reporters that the investigative team may examine whether PES properly maintained the refinery during its most recent “turnaround” (when the refinery was shut down for major repairs).

“Investigators should be looking at the most recent turnarounds to ensure they were completed to all the regulatory and technical requirements,” said Christina E. Simeone, an energy analyst. “They’re going to be looking at that kind of stuff.”

Stopping short of closing the plant completely while investigations take place, Kenney told reporters, “We will see what the federal and state authorities say, if that's what is called for that's what we will do.”

At this time, officials have not yet released details on what caused the explosions.

What Now

The day of the incident, future gasoline prices saw a 3.9% increase—the largest spike in three months—due to the concerns about the explosion’s impact on summer supplies. AAA Mid-Atlantic stated that the Monday prices had not yet been reflected at the pump, but that could change “depending on how long the refinery is shut down, as well as other factors.”

Currently, PES is running the refinery at a reduced rate but has not quantified how much it is producing.

However, although PES claims to be the largest oil refinery on the East Coast, employing more than 1,000 workers and processing about 335,000 barrels of crude oil per day, a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer suggests that incident may have pushed them to the brink financially.

Having just emerged from bankruptcy last year, the last six months have shown a decline in the refinery’s cash balance, as well as a 7.5% increase in long-term debt during the first quarter of this year, totaling $755 million. Additionally, the owner’s stake value decreased by 43% in the first quarter to $82 million.

Industry experts estimate that the cost of replacing the damaged equipment from the fire could easily top $100 million, a skeptical option, Simeone commented regarding her report for the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. The report was published last fall and suggests that PES is so uncompetitive and debt-burdened that it’s “likely” to file for bankruptcy (again) by 2022.

Already this year the company has deferred matching retirement payments until 2020, froze employee bonuses and reorganized its management team.

While investigations continue to take place, concerned residents are encouraged to call the PES Community Information Hotline at 215-339-7300 for updates and the status of the refining complex.

Residents reporting damage from the incident may also call 800-899-1844.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Air quality; Fire; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; Oil and Gas; Safety

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