Philadelphia refinery closes after massive explosion and fire

[Editor: After extensive cleanup, the site could reopen as a renewable energy facility!  See story in the Inquirer, also in cleantechnica.com.  – RS]

From bankruptcy to fire to closure, a rocky end for Philadelphia Energy Solutions

By Patricia Madej, The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 26, 2019
From bankruptcy to fire to closure, a rocky end for Philadelphia Energy Solutions
A view of Philadelphia Energy Solutions on June 26, 2019 in Philadelphia, PA.  – DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the East Coast’s largest refinery, will close within the next month, an announcement that comes days after a series of explosions rocked the city and reverberated throughout the country.

While residents and activists questioned the refinery’s role in the community following the incident, its owner was already edging closer to the financial brink, a little more than a year after a court approved a bankruptcy plan that aimed to bring some stability.

Here’s a look back at the events that lead up the fire, which the refinery’s CEO said Wednesday “made it impossible” to “continue operations.”

2012

The formation: The South Philly complex, which is technically two different refineries, dates back more than a century. Sunoco acquires both refineries, and transferred the complex in 2012 to a joint venture between Sunoco and the Carlyle Group. The joint venture is named Philadelphia Energy Solutions.

January 22, 2018

Bankruptcy: Philadelphia Energy Solutions LLC files a bankruptcy plan in an effort to restructure $525 million of debt and bring in new owners, pointing the finger toward the rising cost of renewable energy credits for its financial distress.

March 26, 2018

Emerging from bankruptcy: A judge approves PES’ bankruptcy plan, putting it on the path toward financial recovery.

Sept. 20, 2018

Previous warning: A report from the University of Pennsylvania predicts that the PES complex might soon shutter and suggests that the city prepare for what to do with the 1,300-acre industrial property.

June 21, 2019

The explosions: series of explosions cause a major blaze at PES that jolted many worried residents out of bed. The fire was so hot and large that it could be detected in space. Residents are first advised to shelter-in-place, though later air tests show that the incident posed no immediate danger. Five people are injured, and an executive director of the Clean Air Council says residents “narrowly dodged a catastrophe.” Activists call for the refinery’s closure.

Updated locator map of the refinery explosion on June 21, 2019, at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia
Updated locator map of the refinery explosion on June 21, 2019, at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia

June 22, 2019

Shifting focus: A fire, albeit small, still flickers, while spotlight shifts to whether the immediate area was exposed to hydrofluoric fluoride, one of the most toxic materials handled in the refinery. Exposure could cause skin and respiratory irritation and be fatal in larger doses.

June 23, 2019

Fire out: The refinery blaze is extinguished after officials shut off the gas valve fueling the fire.

June 24, 2019

Investigation: The investigation into what exactly cause the explosion gets underway, involving multiple federal and local agencies.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019:

Health concerns: Mayor Jim Kenney notes that “there are no findings that would suggest a threat to public health.” Dr. Caroline Johnson, a deputy health commissioner for the city, said hydrogen fluoride was not released.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Closure: The city confirms that Philadelphia Energy Solutions is set to close, and more than 1,000 workers will be impacted. While the shuttering is set to happen within the next month, gas prices were already sent surging. The confirmation of the refinery’s shuttering — as well as the closing of Hahnemann University Hospital — is expected to be a major blow to Philadelphia’s economy.

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    After Two Major Refinery Accidents, Valero and Benicia Take Steps To Work Better Together

    [Editor: In addition to coverage of the current news story, KQED’s Ted Goldberg presents here an excellent summary of Benicia/Valero issues over the last 3 years.  – R.S.]

    After Two Major Refinery Accidents, Valero and Benicia Take Steps To Work Better Together

    By Ted Goldberg, KQED, Jun 25, 2019

    The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

    Benicia officials are set to consider a plan designed to keep the city and its residents better informed when the town’s largest employer, the Valero refinery, has problems.

    The City Council on Tuesday plans to vote on an agreement with the company aimed at establishing a stronger air monitoring network, improving communication and giving the public more access to information about the facility.

    The vote comes three months after a series of serious refinery malfunctions and in the wake of a battle over operations at the facility that spilled over into the Solano County city’s last council election.

    In March the refinery sustained its second major accident in two years.

    The malfunction led to a significant release of soot and smoke that prompted a brief health advisory and a more than 40-day shutdown of the facility — a closure that contributed to last spring’s increase in gasoline prices.

    Under the new proposal up for a vote on Tuesday, Valero would pay $278,000 a year to fund a division chief position at the Benicia Fire Department. The person who holds that job would work as a public liaison and be the point of contact for residents who have concerns or complaints about releases from the refinery. Valero would respond to the division chief’s “reasonable requests for information.”

    The proposal also calls for Valero to give risk management and safety plans to the city, provide the Fire Department with incident reports 72 hours after significant refinery malfunctions and hand over investigative reports to city officials. The city would also work to create a “single, easy” place where residents can find such reports.

    The agreement also promises improved air monitoring by Valero.

    Last November, the company completed installation of a set of air monitors along parts of the fence line of its refinery. But after the releases in March, the site that publishes the fence line data included a warning that all of its measurements should be considered “questionable until further notice” because several of its parts required adjustments.

    City staff say Valero plans to build, install and maintain more air monitors along its northwest boundary at a cost of $1.5 million. The company is also expected to spend $460,000 on adding “community” air monitors that would be located in the city.

    The measure has drawn mixed reaction from members of the City Council, which in the past has considered an industrial safety ordinance, or ISO, to give local officials more oversight of the refinery.

    Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson called the proposal a “good first step” but wanted assurances the new air monitors would be effective.

    “We clearly need to improve our air quality and acknowledge all the sources of air pollution,” Patterson said in an email Monday.

    “This looks like a decent attempt to deal with all the issues that have been presented regarding air monitors and ISOs,” said Councilman Tom Campbell.

    But Campbell pointed out that there’s no timetable for the proposed actions. He said if the Fire Department’s new division chief who worked as a public liaison is aggressive, the agreement would work.

    “The division chief is in our seat at the table,” he said.

    Councilman Steve Young called the proposal “an improvement” over current practices, but said it should be stronger.

    “There should also be warnings to the public prior to any planned instances of increased flaring, as happens during turnarounds or other major maintenance activities,” Young said.

    Councilmember Christina Strawbridge, the town’s vice mayor, called the agreement “well thought out and void of politics.”

    A spokeswoman for Valero declined to comment on the proposal.

    The March problems were the latest in a series of incidents in which the city and company have sometimes been at odds.

    In September 2016, the Benicia City Council rejected Valero’s plan to build a railroad terminal that would allow trains to deliver crude petroleum to the refinery.

    In May 2017, the refinery suffered a power outage that triggered the release of more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

    That 2017 episode led to an effort by some on the council to consider an industrial safety ordinance.

    Mayor Patterson, who complained that Valero and agencies that have oversight of its refinery have failed to provide the city “a seat at the table” when it comes to information about the facility’s problems, championed the measure.

    The City Council rejected the ordinance a year ago.

    But debate over the regulations set the stage for last November’s hard-fought election in which Strawbridge and another council candidate, both backed by a political action committee funded by Valero and its workers’ unions, beat an environmentalist candidate backed by Patterson.

    Strawbridge, who voted against Valero’s bid to build a crude-by-rail terminal, acknowledged in an email Sunday that “tension had escalated with the refinery since the city went through that process. It intensified with last year’s election.”

    The March malfunctions are the source of several ongoing investigations: Valero, the air district, state workplace regulators and Solano County inspectors are still looking into the incident.

    The releases exposed weaknesses in how the air in Benicia is monitored after a refinery incident.

    When soot began spewing from the refinery’s stacks, for instance, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District had to send a van to Benicia because it does not run a stationary air monitoring device in the city’s residential areas.

    Since then the agency has been working on finding a monitoring site, air district spokeswoman Kristine Roselius said Monday.

    District officials visited six potential sites and determined that it wants to place a new air monitor at Robert Semple Elementary School, which is three-quarters of a mile southwest of the refinery, Roselius said.

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      Oregon Republicans flee the state to avoid voting on a major climate change bill

      “Send bachelors and come heavily armed,” one Republican state senator warned police.

      By Umair Irfan, VOX, Jun 21, 2019, 3:58pm EDT
      Oregon Gov. Kate Brown lamented that Republicans fled the state to avoid voting on a historic climate change bill during a press conference on June 20, 2019. KATU News

      Twelve Oregon Republican lawmakers are on the run from the law, having fled the state Senate in Salem on Thursday to deny quorum for a vote on a major climate change bill. The legislation would establish a statewide cap-and-trade scheme for carbon dioxide.

      Democratic Gov. Kate Brown authorized state police to find the lawmakers and bring them back. They are each being fined $500 for every day there aren’t enough senators for a vote. (So far, it’s been two days.) Oregon State Police said they are also coordinating with law enforcement agencies in nearby states to find the Republicans.

      Brown lamented the stunt to avoid passing the bill. “It would have been historic for Oregon, historic for the country, and frankly historic for the world,” she said during a press conference Thursday. “Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have failed to show up and failed to do their jobs.”

      Republicans were defiant, however. Oregon Senate Republican leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. said in a statement that Republicans were being “bullied by the majority party.”

      Another state senator in hiding, Brian Boquist, went further, threatening the police who are trying to round up the wayward lawmakers. “Send bachelors and come heavily armed,” he said. “I’m not going to be a political prisoner.”

      All this for a climate change bill.

      As Vox’s David Roberts explained, Oregon’s climate proposal, House Bill 2020, is truly significant:

      Oregon would be only the second US state to mandate not just greenhouse gas emission reductions in the electricity sector, as so many other states and cities have done, but economy-wide emission reductions. Across every sector — electricity, transportation, and industry — emissions would decline 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050.

      The bill would also bring Oregon into a regional carbon trading system, the Western Climate Initiative. Ted Sickinger at The Oregonian/OregonLive has a good, thorough rundown of why Republicans oppose it. But in a nutshell, they’re arguing it will hurt industry and rural residents.

      Fleeing the state to thwart the bill is an unusual tactic, but it’s not the first time Oregon lawmakers have walked out on the job. In May, they left the Oregon Senate for four days to extract concessions in a school funding bill.

      Democrats currently have supermajorities in both chambers of Oregon’s legislature, but they need Republicans to hold a quorum to conduct business.

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        New coalition: Protect the Bay .org – TAR SANDS FREE SF BAY

        New coalition launched to protect Bay Area from tar sands, oil tankers

        By Dan Bacher, Thursday Jun 20th, 2019 7:33 PM
        ProtectTheBay.org      >> Sign the petition! >>

        SAN FRANCISCO, CA (Traditional Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone Lands) — In a state where oil and gas drilling have increased in recent years, a  group of local residents today launched the Protect the Bay coalition to educate the Bay Area community about the expansion proposal at Phillips 66’s San Francisco Refinery in Rodeo to bring in more oil tankers and process more heavy crude oil like Canadian tar sands.

        “The proposal would impact local health and the climate by increasing refinery emissions and worsening air quality for nearby communities, while also increasing tanker traffic and the risk of a devastating oil spill in San Francisco Bay,” according to a press release from the coalition.

        The San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas — and the increased risk of an oil spill on the bay threatens many fish populations that migrate through, reside, spawn or rear in the bay, including Chinook salmon, steelhead, halibut, striped bass, rockfish, lingcod, leopard sharks, sixgill sharks, soupfin sharks, bat rays, brown smoothhound sharks, green sturgeon, white sturgeon, Pacific herring, anchovies, jack smelt, over a dozen species of surfperch and many other species.

        “If the refinery’s full expansion moves ahead, more than twice as many crude oil tankers could travel to the refinery, some of them carrying tar sands from Canada, which is extremely difficult to clean up. This could add up to as much as a tenfold increase in the amount of tar sands processed in Bay Area refineries,” the group said.

        The coalition said the Canadian federal government is expected to announce next week whether it will approve the new Trans Mountain Pipeline that would likely supply the tar sands to Phillips 66’s San Francisco Refinery.

        “Economists have questioned Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s claims that the pipeline would help Canada reach new markets in Asia, instead of simply expanding into existing U.S. markets in California and Washington,” the group stated.

        Over the last five years, two thirds of tankers loaded with crude oil from the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline went to California, according to a 2018 Greenpeace report. Read more: Why Californians are worried about the Trans Mountain pipeline (The Narwhal, October 2018)

        The coalition launched an extensive website at protectthebay.org with factsheets, presentations, and more on the refinery proposal. The coalition asks local community members to get involved to help illustrate the community’s growing opposition to the refinery expansion proposal by:

        Signing the petition urging decisionmakers to reject the Phillips 66 refinery expansion proposal at protectthebay.org/take-action. The petition will be sent to Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and others.

        Sharing your opposition to the Phillips 66 refinery expansion proposal and the increase in oil tankers in San Francisco Bay on social media using the hashtag #TarSandsFreeSFBay.

        Coalition members include Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (CRUDE), Idle No More SF Bay, Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, Rodeo Citizens Association, Stand.earth, and Sunflower Alliance. Supporting organizations include 350 Bay Area, Amazon Watch, Fresh Air Vallejo, and San Francisco Baykeeper.

        Representatives of the groups in the coalition commented on the launch of the new group.

        “Our community knows refinery expansions are a dead end,” said Isabella Zizi, Stand.earth. “We need our public officials like the Contra Costa County supervisors to stand with us in preventing new pollution sources from harming our health, and supporting real solutions like a just transition for refinery workers and local economic development that protects air and water quality.”

        “Phillips 66’s reckless plans to increase tanker deliveries to its wharf and refine tar sands at its Rodeo refinery are opposed by tens of thousands of Bay Area residents,” said Shoshana Wechsler, Sunflower Alliance. “These plans endanger our neighbors living near that refinery and the entire San Francisco Bay, and they worsen an already severe climate crisis. People power stopped an oil terminal in Pittsburg, and oil train projects in Benicia and San Luis Obispo. We won’t rest until Phillips 66’s tar sands proposals are dead in the water.”

        “The refinery’s latest plan to expand dilbit imports, cracking of that bitumen, and recovery of those diluent oils threatens to lock in a worst-case future for our climate, air, health, safety, and Bay,” said Greg Karras, Communities for a Better Environment. People have a right to know about this unnecessary threat.”

        “The small towns of Rodeo and nearby Crockett are ‘ground zero’ for tar sands processing in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it’s not just us who will be affected. Sounds from increased tanker traffic will negatively impact the already stressed, killer whale population and hasten its long-term slide to extinction,” said Nancy Rieser, Crockett-Rodeo United Defend the Environment. “Equally important, is the plight of the indigenous communities of Alberta, Canada whose waterways and lands have been devastated by tar sands mining. It is our sincere hope that the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors stand in solidarity with the people they are tasked to serve and do what’s right for the West Coast.”

        “Rodeo Citizens and our neighbors throughout Contra Costa County have been overwhelmed with toxic chemical releases from this refinery,” said Janet Pygeorge, Rodeo Citizens Association. “The asthma rate in Contra Coast County school children is higher than surrounding areas, as is the cancer rate when compared to the national average.”

        The coalition is hosting this upcoming event in the Bay Area:

        July [date TBA]Toxics Tour with community members 
        Take a guided tour of the Bay Area’s refineries and learn about the toxic pollution that people living near the refineries experience every day. This event is open to the public, and reporters are welcome to attend. Contact info [at] protectthebay.org with questions or to RSVP.

        Most Californians, including many environmentalists, are unaware of how effectively Big Oil and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) have captured California regulators, in spite of the state’s “green” image.

        A review of state permitting records in last year’s report “The Sky’s The Limit: California,” shows that more than 21,000 oil and gas well drilling permits were issued during the Jerry Brown administration. These wells include 238 new offshore wells approved between 2012 and 2016, according to Department of Conservation data analyzed by the Fractracker Alliance: http://www.fractracker.org/

        The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) is not a household name in California, but it should be. It’s the trade association for the oil industry and the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying organization in the state. If  you want to know the industries, organizations and people that control California, WSPA and Big Oil are right at the top of the list.

        WSPA represents a who’s who of oil and pipeline companies, including AERA. BP, California Resources Corporation, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Plains All American Pipeline Company, Valero and many others. The companies that WSPA represents account for the bulk of petroleum exploration, production, refining, transportation and marketing in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, according to the WSPA website, http://www.wspa.org.

        WSPA and Big Oil wield their power and influence over public discourse in 6 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: (5) working in collaboration with media; and (6) contributing to non profit organizations.


        For a complete analysis of how Big Oil and WSPA exert their power and influence over public discourse and California regulators, read my article here: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/5/31/1861615/-California-s-Biggest-Secret-How-Big-Oil-Dominates-Public-Discourse-to-Manipulate-and-Deceive

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