When Imperial Oil reported heavy flaring last Thursday after its Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, facility lost “air supply” to several processing units, leading to their shutdown, it reinforced the idea to officials the need for a faster and more reliable way to share information during emergencies.
Three of four main flare stacks went into operation, burning off excess hydrocarbon materials from the units at the Imperial Oil site next to the St. Clair River, said Gary Wheeler, with the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.
While the incident was occurring, officials from Canada and neighboring Michigan were able to view video of the flaring on Facebook, but yet, not everyone knew what was going on and it raised concerns about what was happening on the Canadian side of the river.
It took an amount of time before there were official answers, and for residents of the Michigan county living directly across the river from Sarnia, there was concern.
“I’ve been here 26 years, and it has been a roller coaster,” said Jeff Friedland, director of homeland security and emergency management for St. Clair County in Michigan in a published report. “Sometimes things work very well, and other times they don’t.”
Friedland said he became aware of the situation approximately two hours after it began, as a result of what was happening on social media. “It was almost the impression that the sky was falling,” he said.
Friedland said he made phone calls and learned there was no hazardous impact on St. Clair County, which put him at ease, but didn’t eliminate the frustration he was seeing on social media.
“The rumors on social media just flew, for a couple of hours,” Friedland said.
“People were saying Dow Chemical blew up, and heck, Dow Chemical hasn’t been there for what, 15 years?”
Approximately three hours after the situation began at Imperial Oil, Friedland received formal notification through an agreement in place between Michigan and Ontario.
Under that process, when there’s an incident in St. Clair County, officials there make an assessment and provide information to the Michigan State Police operations center. From there the information ends up relayed to Ontario’s Spills Action Centre, where they assess it and communities in Lambton County end up notified.
The same process happens in reverse when there’s an incident in Ontario, Friedland said.
While last Thursday’s event at Imperial Oil wasn’t an emergency, it had an emotional impact on residents of the county, Friedland said. “People were scared.”
There could have been a way to avoid that apprehension if there was a better way for officials in the nearby communities to share information, Friedland said.
Friedland said the state and provincial process doesn’t take into account the unique situation in Lambton and St. Clair counties where it can only take minutes for a vapor release to reach the other shore of the river.
“It should be that as soon as somebody has minimal information to give a heads-up, they should be giving it to everybody at the same time,” he said.
“We need to get the right players together, and we’ve got to solve this problem, locally.”
Meanwhile, flaring will continue for several days at the Imperial Oil refinery.
The company said, in a news release Wednesday, it continues to restart units following the operational issue last Thursday that led to flaring at its refinery and chemical plant.
“We are working around the clock to return our refinery and chemical operations to normal in a safe and effective manner and we understand that the flaring, which is part of the restart process, has been visible to the community,” said Rohan Davis, Imperial Oil’s Sarnia refinery manager.
Air qualify has been monitored as a precaution and there have been no issues of concern identified since the operating issue began, officials said.
The company also said Wednesday it had not completed its investigation into the cause of the operational issue.