A massive explosion at an old oil refinery shook South Philadephia early Friday morning, causing the city to issue orders for nearby residents to shelter in place, and the fire, while controlled, continued to burn into Saturday until the refinery was able to turn off a valve, according to Philadelphia fire and emergency management officials. The explosion occurred after one of a series of gas blasts at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery sent a fireball into the air and “rocked people awake” for miles at around 4:30 a.m. Four workers at the plant were injured, but the blast, according to Reuters, “renewed concerns about the oil industry’s use of a highly toxic chemical to make high-octane gasoline at plants in densely populated areas.”
Why This Matters: Aging refineries and industrial facilities sited in large urban areas are a real risk and their safety must be very closely monitored and they should potentially be closed if they do not meet strict safety standards.
- Three hundred thousand people live within 3 miles of this plant — the explosion was so strong that residents thought it was a nuclear blast, and it knocked pictures off the walls of homes in Philly and was felt as far away as New Jersey.
- This facility is the largest emitter of particulate matter (PM) air pollution in the city and the Federal Chemical Safety Board (CSB) should give the entire incident a hard look to determine what caused it.
Indeed, one member of the Board told the local NBC news affiliate that the region dodged a bullet and that if another chemical had been involved, the explosion could have been a catastrophe to human life. We need to know what other facilities like this are at risk and to examine the impacts of facilities like these on the mostly poor and minority communities in which they are located. This facility dates back to the 19th century — it opened a year after the Civil War ended.
The Explosion Could Have Been A Real Disaster.
- Reuters reported that “one of the explosions took place in a hydrofluoric acid alkylation unit – a chemical processing unit that has been involved in three near-misses of releases into cities in California, Texas and Wisconsin, according to safety officials.”
- Hydrofluoric acid (HF) “can form a toxic cloud at room temperature while exposure can lead to severe health problems and even death.”
- “Fifty, or more than a third, of 135 U.S. refineries operate HF alkylation units, according to the CSB.”
- “In April, the CSB called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revisit a study on HF’s use and the potential to replace it with another process after hearing from worried residents during its probe of a 2018 refinery fire.”
- “Refinery workers and surrounding community residents are rightly concerned about the adequacy of the risk management for the use of hazardous chemicals like HF,” the CSB told the EPA after its investigations of fires at refineries in Wisconsin, California, and Texas.
According to the local NBC news station, a “plume of thick, black smoke billowed east from the large complex near Philadelphia International Airport and over portions of South Philadelphia, the Delaware River and into South Jersey.” Though city health officials said the area was safe, the smoke could be dangerous, according to an air-quality expert. “Immediate exposure can trigger asthma and other issues,” he cautioned. “If it were me, what I would do is leave the area for as much of the day as possible.”
This morning, one of our forecasters noticed that the refinery explosion in #Philadelphia was captured on satellite. The heat signature is so large and hot it could be detected using infrared imagery. pic.twitter.com/2zTcSM8n5U
— NWS Key West (@NWSKeyWest) June 21, 2019