Note: This story has been updated with a response from Mayor Jim Kenney’s office
An vat of butane exploded at a South Philly oil refinery early Friday morning, leaving the structure burning for hours and forcing nearby residents to shelter in their homes.
The explosion at the 150-year-old refinery on 3100 West Passyunk Avenue was reported around 4 a.m. and was still burning around 7 a.m., according to BillyPenn. Philadelphia Energy Solutions crews and 120 members of the Philadelphia Fire Department were battling the fire Friday morning, and were working to keep it from spreading around 7:30 a.m., the fire department said. Five people were treated at the scene, according to officials from the fire department.
Shortly after the blast, the Philly Office of Emergency Management (OEM) instituted a shelter in place, telling nearby residents to remain in their homes due to concerning smoke plume created by the fire. OEM cited Philadelphia Energy Solutions—which owns the refinery—in saying the fire was caused by a vat of butane that exploded and was burning.
The shelter order was lifted for portions of the surrounding neighborhoods around 7 a.m. Several hours later, around 9:30 a.m., the Philadelphia Department of Public Health announced that it had taken samples of the air quality and determined there was no immediate danger to residents in the area.
⚠️ UPDATE: Philadelphia Fire Department announces that the shelter-in-place request in portions of South Philadelphia has been lifted. Please avoid area near Passyunk and 26th Street due to amount of fire apparatus and first responders. https://t.co/kQeZmUd4Rs— Philadelphia OEM (@PhilaOEM) June 21, 2019
The Health Department has no findings that would point to any immediate danger in the surrounding community at this time, and the City is NOT recommending evacuation or shelter-in-place.— Philadelphia Department of Public Health (@PHLPublicHealth) June 21, 2019
The city’s response
Mayor Jim Kenney met with representatives from PES Friday morning following the fire, saying that this incident was unrelated to smaller fire at PES on June 10, according to a statement from the mayor’s office Friday afternoon.
“Still, I believe that there is room for improvement, both in the operation of the refinery in light of two fires in as many weeks, and in the communication to residents,” Kenney said. He announced a plan to create a “working group” between Managing Director Brian Abernathy, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, and PES leaders to examine issues of communication and the refinery’s operation.
A focus of the group will ensuring that air quality concerns are addressed immediately following any future incidents, the statement said.
Philadelphians and early morning commuters documented the explosion on social media, some with video showing the moment the fire ripped through the South Philly plant.
The National Weather Service’s Key West office tweeted that the explosion was so massive, it was captured on satellite imagery.
“The heat signature is so large and hot it could be detected using infrared imagery,” they wrote.
Though the cause of the fire is still unknown, Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy told 6abc that the initial vat explosion was followed by a series of small explosions as the fire traveled along pipes that contained fuel.
Several SEPTA buses are anticipating delays due to activity around the refinery, including buses 17, 37, 68, and G.
History of the refinery
The 1,300-acre refinery is both the largest East Coast refinery and the oldest, dating back to the late 1860s, when Atlantic Petroleum Company built four warehouses along the Schuylkill River to store over 2 million gallons of refined oil product, according to PES. In 1926, Gulf Oil opened another refinery in Girard Point, just south of Atlantic’s operation.
Sunoco, which bought both refineries in the late 1900s, entered into a partnership with the Carlyle Group in 2012, creating PES. Now PES oversees the two refineries, which process 14 million gallons of crude oil a day, according to the company.
But they’ve come under scrutiny in recent years, especially with a study published by the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2018.
The study, titled “Beyond Bankruptcy,” was first reported on by Inquirer.com last fall, and examined the future of the refinery after it emerged from bankruptcy last year. The report anticipated the refinery would face bankruptcy again by 2022, “when its debts mature.”
“Although PES is a large facility, it is not state of the art...PES is a rather simple refinery compared to the rest of the U.S. fleet.,” the report said, adding that Sunoco had been losing money on the refinery even before the partnership that created PES.
The report also pointed to a “profound” history of pollution contamination at the refinery, saying that Sunoco has taken steps to characterize and cleanup pollution at the site. But the report criticized the company for not adequately involving the public in the creation of the cleanup plans.
Following Friday’s explosion, Mayor Jim Kenney plans to meet with representatives of PES today, according to the mayor’s office.
This story will be updated as we learn more information