Five workers suffered injuries after a series of explosions and a massive fire ripped through Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ (PES) oil refinery early Friday.
Firefighters contained the blaze at the South Philadelphia facility within a couple hours, but it was still burning and had not been declared under control.
Preliminary testing at the refinery “found no ambient carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons (combustibles), or hydrogen sulfides,” according to the city Office of Emergency Management, which is awaiting results from additional air pollution testing from the Air Management Services lab.
The workers suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene, according to PES and the city.
Officials lifted a shelter-in-place request for residents in the immediate area and reopened the Platt Bridge, which was closed after the explosions.
“Those who live and work in close proximity to the refinery and all Philadelphians have our word — we are firmly committed to ensuring the safe operation of the refinery, and the safety of those in its vicinity,” said Mayor Jim Kenney.
The blast was reported about 4 a.m. and arriving firefighters found PES refining complex firefighters battling the blaze, Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said.
A propane tank caused the fire, said Cosmo Servidio, Environmental Protection Agency head for Mid-Atlantic, adding that “No other tanks were affected.”
“We have not determined the product that was burning, but we believe it was mostly propane,” PES said in a statement. Earlier in the day, Murphy said butane was thought to be feeding the fire.
PES said there were three separate explosions that “impacted” a unit that produces alkylate, which is used to boost gasoline octane.
The refinery complex has two alkylation units, and the Girard Point unit that appears to have been involved in the incident uses deadly hydrofluoric acid as a catalyst.
The refinery did not respond to questions about whether any hydrofluoric acid was released in Friday’s accident.
The cause of the explosions are not yet known.
“The Fire Marshal’s Office will investigate the cause and origin of the fire once the incident is over and the scene is safe to enter. But the investigation will take time. For now, this remains a dynamic situation,” said Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel.
All employees at the plant when the blast occurred have been accounted for, PES said.
An “emergency response plan” was activated at the refining complex after the explosion, and responders from the company, as well as the Philadelphia Fire Department, were on the scene, said Cherice Corley, a PES spokesperson. Philadelphia police handled road closures.
The fire department supported the refinery team’s operations, Murphy said, keeping the fire contained to the alkylation unit and cooling surrounding pipes and tanks with water. He said 120 Philadelphia firefighters and 51 pieces of equipment were involved in the operation.
“It is standard practice when fighting a fire of this type to let the flammable gases burn away in a controlled fashion,” Thiel said.
The refinery was the scene of a smaller fire PES said was quickly contained on June 10. There were no injuries in that incident.
Kenney said in a statement he spoke today with PES leadership, as well as the fire department and Managing Director’s Office, and “was assured that the two incidents are unrelated in their nature and cause” and was informed of the speed that notifications went to nearby residents.
The Chemical Safety Board is deploying to the site of the fire to begin an investigation.