Report: PA Refinery Fire Caused by Corroded Pipe


A degraded piece of metal pipe has been named the culprit behind the fire at a Philadelphia crude oil refinery that occurred back in June, an incident that was the result of several explosions, generating a blast that could be felt as far as South Jersey and Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released the 10-page update earlier this week.

Philadelphia Refinery Fire

Around 4 a.m. on June 21, an explosion occurred at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions 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 produced 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 used a deadly chemical, hydrogen fluoride, as a catalyst.

Officials have since gone on record to say that none of the chemicals were released in that 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 Department decided to confine and contain the blaze.

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.

Recent Report

In the update, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board reports that a pipe elbow had corroded to roughly half the “thickness of a credit card.” The piece ruptured in the refinery’s alkylation unit, which resulted in the release of process fluid that included over 5,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid.

The update also details that the elbow was susceptible to corrosion due to the hydrofluoric acid in the process fluid, and though the pipe thickness was measured periodically, the elbow at issue had not been assessed for corrosion. That segment of piping also had high nickel and copper content. As the Board writes: “Various industry publications have found that carbon steel with a higher percentage of nickel and copper corrodes at a faster rate than carbon steel with a lower percentage when used in a process with hydrofluoric acid.”

A following event, which involved the rupturing of a V-1 Treater Feed Surge Drum, launched a 38,000-pound vessel fragment across the Schuylkill River. Two other fragments landed in the refinery.

“Corrosion is not a new issue for the CSB. In its prior investigation of a 2012 Chevron Refinery fire we determined that corrosion caused the rupture of a piping component,” said CSB Supervisory Investigator Lauren Grim.

“Similarly, the 2009 Silver Eagle refinery fire was also caused by the failure of piping that had thinned due to corrosion.”

Reuters reported in September that PES executives were paid $4.5 million in retention bonuses days after the incident, and 1,100 refinery workers were laid off.

The CSB’s investigation into the incident is ongoing.


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

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.