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PES to permanently shut down oil refinery after explosion, mayor says

The refinery will shut down within the month


This story has been updated with a response from PES

A south Philly oil refinery, which was the site of a massive explosion and fire early Friday morning, will shut down within the month, according to the mayor’s office.

“I’m extremely disappointed for the more than one thousand workers who will be immediately impacted by this closure, as well as other businesses that are dependent on the refinery operations,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement Wednesday.

He said a group of city and “quasi-government” organizations will be put together to discuss the economic and employment impacts of the shut down, and what the city can do in response.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES), which operates the refinery, released a statement Wednesday saying, “While our teams include some of the most talented people in the industry, the recent fire at the refinery complex has made it impossible for us to continue operations.”

They added they will “safely wind down operations” and will position the refinery complex for “sale and restart.”

The news comes just days after the explosion, which was reported around 4 a.m. Friday at the refinery on the 3100 block of West Passyunk. A vat of butane exploded, setting off smaller fires as it traveled along pipes that contained fuel at the 1,300-acre plant.

The refinery continued blazing until 120 firefighters contained it around 7:30 a.m. Friday. There were still fires reported at the plant as late as 2:45 p.m. that day. Five people were treated at the scene and The Office of Emergency Management (OEM) instructed area residents to stay in their homes until around 7 a.m. Friday.

Philadelphians documented the explosion on social media Friday.

Safety concerns following the fire

Friday night it was reported that the explosion happened close to an alkylate unit, which uses hydrofluoric acid, a dangerous and potentially deadly chemical.

Hydrofluoric acid can let off a gas that would burn the skin and could be deadly, UPenn researcher Christina Simeone, who authored a study on pollution at the plant, told Curbed Philly Friday. Simeone said the gas “forms a dense cloud that hugs to the ground.” She added that the refinery uses an additive that is supposed to make the gas quickly disperse, but that many have questioned its efficacy.

PES said they were were working closely with the Chemical Safety Board and other agencies to investigate the incident. The acid was not released during the explosion, officials say.

Philly’s Department of Public Health reported Friday that they took samples of the air with hand monitors right outside the plant and through the neighborhood, looking for hydrocarbons, combustibles, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon monoxide. All tests came back negative, said the health department’s communications director James Garrow.

The department conducted 18 more tests over the weekend, all of which came back negative, he said Monday.

On Saturday and Sunday the department also took grab samples and tested the air around the plant for 61 different volatile compounds. All 61 compounds came back as being below legal limits, though two compounds—acetone and ethanol—were reported as being higher than usual, Garrow said.

The aftermath of the blaze

It’s not clear why the 150-year-old refinery decided to close its operations following the fire, but city officials say it was a decision made entirely by PES.

PES did not immediately respond to calls regarding the closure Wednesday.

On Friday, the mayor met with members of PES, and planned to create a working group made up of Managing Director Brian Abernathy, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, and PES leaders to examine issues of communication and the refinery’s operation in the future.

The plant has had financial issues in recent years. Last year Simeone authored a study at UPenn, “Beyond Bankruptcy” which detailed how the refinery emerged from bankruptcy in 2018, and theorized that it would face bankruptcy again by 2022, “when its debts mature.”

“Post-bankruptcy, PES is now majority owned by creditors (e.g. financial institutions) with Sunoco and the Carlyle Group relegated to minority interests,” Simeone wrote.

Apart from its financial woes, the plant has also come under scrutiny regarding pollution and safety in recent years, which amplified in the weeks following a smaller fire at the refinery on June 10. Activists with PhillyThrive have been holding weekly protests, calling for the plant to be “transitioned” into public land, possibly for use as a renewable energy source. They’re concerned primarily about the safety of the refinery, as well as toxins produced at the site.

Simeone said tests have shown contamination in the soil from hydrocarbons.

“Light non-aqueous phase liquids (e.g., refinery products like gasoline) are present on the groundwater in many areas of the facility,” she wrote.

Following Wednesday’s news, PhillyThrive released a statement calling for the 1,300 acres to be restored to public land, and for city council “to fund studies into development of community-owned renewable energy on the land.” They also called for the city to prohibit new fossil fuel development, starting with the LNG plant that passed city council earlier this month.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available