Chief investigator of the refinery explosion gives her first impressions of a landscape of twisted steel
The head of a federal agency investigating last Friday’s explosions and fire at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions called the incident “catastrophic” and said the main unit where blasts occurred is still too dangerous for investigators to enter, calling it a landscape of twisted metal.
Kristen Kulinowski, interim executive for the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, said at a briefing Thursday that no cause has yet been determined by four investigators from the independent agency now on the scene. But, she did release new details of that day.
Events began around 4 a.m.June 21, she said, when hydrocarbon vapors were released in the alkylation unit that converts crude oil. The unit uses hydrofluoric acid as a catalyst. In its gaseous state -- hydrogen fluoride -- it poses serious health risks for anyone nearby. Officials said there was no release of HF during the fire.
“We don’t know what caused the leak yet,” Kulinowski said, only where it first occurred.
Somehow, the vapors were ignited. Kulinowski did not know the source of the ignition, but said it could have been a range of things. In other refinery blasts, she said, sources of ignition have ranged from welding equipment to an electric motor.
The initial blast at the facility occurred about 4:22 a.m., apparently the result of the vapor igniting. After that, there were multiple blasts.
“Our investigators have not been able to enter the unit where the explosion occurred,” Kulinowski said.
She called it a “fundamental failure in the system,” at the PES facility. “I know that this event has been very disturbing for the community surrounding the facility and the City of Philadelphia."
Kulinowski said the investigation is still in a preliminary stage, hampered by the fact that the blast was so damaging.
“I should point out that our investigators have not yet been able to enter the unit where the explosion occurred,” Kulinowski said. “The area right now is still unstable. And it’s unsafe for our investigators to be walking around out there. Our first priority will be to go in and do a physical examination.”
The agency has investigated about a dozen refinery incidents in the past 20 years, Kulinowski said, including those resulting in fatalities, serious injury and property damage. The agency has no enforcement powers and can only make recommendations.
“Refining, you know, is a high hazard industry. Hydrocarbons are flammable, and explosive," Kulinowski said. “And that’s why the safety management systems are in place to help prevent their unintentional release. And so this is an example of where somehow some hydrocarbon got out of the pipe or the tank or whatever it was, and found an ignition source and then led to the cascade of events ...”
She said it was “fortunate” no one was injured and that the area around the blast was described to her, “as a lot of twisted metal and a lot of debris that had been scattered across a large area.”
Also Thursday, Philadelphia labor leader John Dougherty on Thursday blasted the leadership of Philadelphia Energy Solutions after the company’s abrupt announcement that it plans to shut down its South Philadelphia refinery following last week’s devastating fire, and asked the company to rescind the planned shut down.
In a letter to the refinery’s chief executive Mark Smith, Dougherty, the business manager of the 50,000-member Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, expressed “dismay and outrage” that Wednesday’s announcement of a closure came with no warning.
“We will use whatever government regulatory or legal means available to use should you choose not to cooperate with us,” said Dougherty, who has maintained his leadership role after being indicted in January under federal charges of embezzlement, bribery, and theft.
Dougherty also complained that contractors, who do frequent maintenance work at the refinery, have been told they will not get paid, even though he estimates the plant earned profits as recently as the first quarter of this year.
The refinery, the largest on the East Coast, sent a notice to state labor officials that it will shut the plant down Monday and lay off about 1,020 workers in the following two weeks. The fire significantly damaged equipment and systems at a complex that was already struggling financially, the company said.
The fire began from a leaking fuel pipe near an alkylation unit in the Girard Point side of the 1,400-refinery complex, which is actually two adjacent refineries under common ownership. Employees said the first explosion occurred moments after refinery workers were alerted.
The alkylation unit, which produces a blending agent that increases the octane of gasoline, was destroyed in the blast. The Girard Point alkylation equipment, known as Unit 433, uses highly toxic hydrofluoric acid as a catalyst, but city officials said there was no release of HF in the accident.
The alkylation unit operator shut down the equipment after the first alert, causing hydrofluoric acid to be removed quickly into a protected storage. The safety measure, installed during a 2009 overhaul by the refinery’s previous owner, was designed to reduce the chances of a catastrophic release of deadly HF gas.
Philadelphia emergency management officials lifted a shelter-in-place order around 7 a.m.
The accident is under review by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Fire Marshal’s Office, and the Chemical Safety Board (CSB).
The CSB, which investigates industrial fires and explosions, says that 50 of the nation’s 150 refineries operate HF alkylation units. The board in April called on the Environmental Protection Agency to revisit the effectiveness of existing regulations for hydrofluoric acid and whether there are safer technologies available for alkylation.
The CSB conducts “root cause” investigations of chemical accidents at industrial facilities but does not have the power to prosecute or fine violators. Its investigations typically take a year to 18 months to complete.
The investigators may examine whether there is any connection between Friday’s accident and a “turnaround," or maintenance outage, the refinery had planned in January and February, but which was cut short, refinery workers said. The abbreviated turnaround had targeted the Girard Point side of the refinery complex, including some equipment close to the alkylation unit that was destroyed.
PES said it is cooperating with investigators.
The refining complex processes 335,000 barrels of crude oil daily, according to PES. The refinery turns the crude into gasoline, jet fuel, propane, home heating oil and other products.
Following bankruptcy last year, the company’s majority ownership was left in the hands of investment banking firms Credit Suisse Asset Management and Bardin Hill, formerly Halcyon Management.