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Two US refineries fined for safety violations

21 January 2020

Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES), which owns the largest US east coast oil refinery, and PBF Energy, which owns the Torrance Refinery in California, have been fined for violations relating to process safety management, chemical safety, and risk-management.

South Philadelphia oil refinery complex - Image: PES
South Philadelphia oil refinery complex - Image: PES

The US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined PES $132,600 for process safety management violations on January 17. The fine relates to an explosion at the Philadelphia refinery in June 2019 which injured five workers and released the highly toxic chemical hydrofluoric acid (HF) into the atmosphere. PES was cited for 10 specific violations, including insufficient hazard analysis and inadequate inspection of equipment. 

In October, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said that an old piece of metal pipe that had not been tested for corrosion was the cause of the fire and explosions. During the incident, three separate explosions hurled pieces of the refinery weighing an estimated 17 tonnes around the site, and some across the nearby Schuylkill River and onto highways, causing a blaze that was visible for miles and destroying an alkylation unit that uses HF to produce components of high-octane gasoline. Philadelphia Energy Solutions filed for bankruptcy a month later and shut down the 335,000 barrel-per day refinery.

On January 17, an auction was held to decide whether the plant will be restarted or used for a different purpose for the first time in over a century. PES is expected to reveal the outcome of the auction on January 22.

Meanwhile, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined the owners of the Torrance Refinery $125,000 on January 13 for chemical safety and risk-management violations. The violations come from a 2016 investigation into an explosion and fire at the plant which injured four workers in February 2015. The refinery was owned by ExxonMobil at the time. 

The explosion narrowly missed tanks containing a modified form of HF, which could have released a highly toxic cloud over the locality. The US Chemical Safety Board said the explosion almost led to a catastrophic release of the acid that could have killed or injured thousands. In the wake of the explosion, ExxonMobil paid $566,600 in a settlement with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health for eight safety and workplace violations.

The EPA’s investigation found that equipment designed to prevent the release of HF was left broken for weeks. The refinery, which Exxon sold to New Jersey-based PBF Energy in 2015, has since corrected all violations. PBF Energy will also spend an additional $219,000 to enhance chemical safety features at the plant, including a new automated water system. 

According to the EPA, the 2016 investigation found inaccuracies in the refinery’s risk management plan, including the failure to conduct an adequate risk assessment of the plant.

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