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Four injured in explosion at Philadelphia refinery

24 June 2019

A fire and subsequent explosions at the largest refinery on the US East Coast have injured four workers. Several explosions occurred at Philadelphia Energy Solutions Inc’s oil refinery in the early hours of June 21 following the ignition of a fire in a tank.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery - Image: Philadelphia Energy Solutions
Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery - Image: Philadelphia Energy Solutions

The fire erupted into a significant fireball and the explosions were felt for miles around the plant according to local news. Initially, there was no access to a gas valve that was fuelling the fire due to the damage caused to the structure. The fire was left to burn under controlled conditions before going out a day later on June 22 when responders eventually gained access to the valve and turned it off. 

Reuters reports that the alkylation unit which was involved in the fire has been completely destroyed, affecting the supply of gasoline from the refinery. It could take several years for the unit to be rebuilt. The alkylation unit is where crude oil is converted into fuels by using hydrofluoric acid, one of the most toxic chemicals used in the refinery, as a catalyst. So far, no hazardous chemicals have been detected in the air surrounding the refinery.

Four workers were treated on-site having suffered minor injuries as a result of the blasts.

Local news reported that the Philadelpha fire department said a vat of butane had ignited and eventually exploded which then created a series of smaller explosions in the pipes which carry fuel around the refinery. Overall, there were three explosions causing debris to be littered over surrounding streets and a thick, black plume of smoke to billow away from the refinery near Philadelphia International Airport towards South Philadelphia, the Delaware River and South Jersey.

Investigations by a number of agencies, including a four-member team from the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), have now begun to find the cause of the fire and explosions. Air quality has been continually monitored since the incident both inside the refinery premises and in local communities. 

The fire and explosions will be another blow to Philadelphia Energy Solutions which came out of bankruptcy just last year. In recent months, the refinery has undergone a number of cost-saving measures in order to remain competitive.

The Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery processes 335,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

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