South Philadelphia Refinery Fire Out; Probe Into Cause Just Beginning

What led to a series of explosions and a fire that rocked the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia last week?

What to Know

  • For two days, a part of a South Philly refinery that exploded in a giant fireball continued to burn.
  • Neighbors and environmentalists are worried about air quality. The plant is known as the largest single source of pollution in Philadelphia.
  • So far, air quality checks have not found the air to be unsafe. However, more investigation will start Monday.

The fire at a South Philadelphia refinery struck by explosions and a pre-dawn blaze last week was extinguished over the weekend as an investigation is launched into what caused it, authorities said.

The blaze at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex, the East Coast's largest oil refinery, was extinguished Saturday afternoon, fire department and city officials said in a statement Sunday. The gas valve that had been fueling the blaze was shut off and the alkylation unit involved in the explosion was isolated, officials said.

The fire department's hazmat unit and the public health department are still monitoring air quality, which they said earlier they have been doing every two or three hours without finding any threat to public health.

Efforts to ease concerns in neighboring communities has not provided much comfort to residents who wonder what was in the thick, black smoke they watched rise into the air Friday morning at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery.

Saturday, organizers cited air quality concerns and canceled a free boating program at nearby Bartram's Garden.

"It's better safe than sorry," Christopher Formen, safety boater and rowing instructor at Bartram's Garden, said. "We don't know about the air quality. We don't know what the situation is with the physical fire. we don't know if something else is going to explode."

The PES refinery is the largest on the East Coast. The 150-year-old industrial plant is known as the largest single source of particulate pollution in the Philadelphia area even when there isn't an emergency.

NBC10 cameras were rolling as an explosion occured at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia around 4:22 a.m. Friday, June 21, 2019.

Neighbors have protested the refinery and wondered about its safety. A group called Philly Thrive gathered again Friday at City Hall after protesting the same refinery earlier this month following a small fire at PES.

"I have witnessed it for years, blowing up," one protester, who lives near the refinery, said. "This is bad, people. Enough is enough."

Starting Monday, the cause and origin of the fire will be investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and the fire marshal's office, officials said.

The blasts and fire at the plant at about 4 a.m. Friday, which shook homes and sent a fireball aloft, occurred at a tank containing a mixture of butane and propane, authorities said. Five workers were treated for minor injuries, and nearby residents were asked to stay inside for a short time after the biggest blast.

PES has launched a hotline for concerned neighbors, ‪215-339-7300. The company also asked anyone with damage to report to call 800-899-1844.

On Saturday, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told reporters he was shocked after learning about the explosions.

"My initial reaction was 'Damn, this is bad,'" Kenney said. "It was a frightening scene. I'm thankful that no one got killed or seriously injured.”

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney called for continued monitoring and regulation of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery after what he called a “frightening” blast rocked the facility Friday.

Kenney said health and safety issues need to be addressed, but he stopped short of calling for the closure of the plant.

"We will see what the federal and state authorities say, if that's what is called for that's what we will do," Kenney said.

But City Councilwoman-at-Large Helen Gym issued a statement Friday calling for the refinery to be shut down until PES could assure the safety of its workers and neighboring residents.

Officials have not officially released details on what caused the explosion.

Pictures: South Philadelphia Refinery Explosion and Fire

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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