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Philly Refinery Fire Highlights Need For Better Air Monitoring, Experts Tell PA Lawmakers

Emma Lee
Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams questions a witness during a hearing on the PES refinery fire at the University of Pennsylvania.

Scientists and regulators appeared before Pennsylvania state lawmakers Wednesday to discuss the environmental impacts of the fire that ripped through Philadelphia Energy Solutionslast month, and they almost universally made the same recommendation.

Improve the city’s air-quality monitoring.

After the explosion, which occurred in the PES refinery’s alkylation unit, Philadelphia’s Air Monitoring Service said the air was safe to breathe, given readings from both on-site monitoring systems and handheld monitors. In particular, regulators were looking for the possible release of hydrogen fluoride, or HF, which is used as a catalyst in the alkylation unit to turn crude oil into high-octane fuel. If released, HF vaporizes and can travel quickly, causing severe health conditions and, potentially, death.

But the experts before the committee questioned whether the air monitors were appropriately positioned to measure contaminants. 

“None of the routine air-monitoring locations from the city were along the wind axis at the time of the fire,” said Charles Haas, head of the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at Drexel University. “And, therefore, peak exposures could not be measured. Some of the peak exposures could have occurred in southeast Philadelphia, and then after traversing the Delaware River, into southern New Jersey.”

The city maintains that the readings were accurate and that the public was kept safe.

“There has been continuous monitoring of HF at the refinery before and after the fire,” said Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesman James Garrow. “No one, whether it be PES or any of the agencies investigating the fire, have detected HF with a functioning meter, at any point.”

Garrow conceded, however, that one of the city’s meters, which was being used to confirm PES’s own zero readings, had not been functioning properly.

“[Air Monitoring Service] inspectors tested for the presence of HF to confirm the zero readings reported by PES,” Garrow said. “Due to the meter not being properly calibrated, the inspectors requested that the EPA and PES confirm the zero readings. Both confirmed that there was no HF present in the air. The AMS inspectors took the improperly calibrated meter out of service.”

Marilyn Howarth, director of community outreach and engagement at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, said faulty equipment isn’t acceptable.

“There should have been a backup that was readily available,” she told lawmakers. “But frankly, the real question is why didn’t they have the right equipment in the right places, in the neighborhoods where people were potentially affected, right then?”

Howarth and others also noted that handheld monitoring devices are not always reliable when used outdoors. Nevertheless, she said this was an opportunity to improve air-quality monitoring, not just in Philadelphia but across the state.

“I think that a systematic analysis of exactly what kind of monitoring should be done in the context of this kind of an industry, throughout Pennsylvania,” she said. “Whoever is charged with doing local monitoring to protect the public, they need to be integrated into the emergency response program, and we need to make sure that they have the appropriate equipment that can be immediately deployed so that people can be protected.” 

State Sen. Anthony Williams, who convened the meeting, said he heard the message loud and clear.

“Everybody agreed pretty much that the detection system needs to be significantly reviewed, if not upgraded to guarantee that the conclusions that we’re reaching are founded in science,” he said.

Philadelphia is one of only two counties in the state in charge of monitoring its own air quality (the other being Allegheny County), which is why the city communicates directly with the EPA and not the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“They’re keeping us informed through our department,” said DEP regional director Patrick Patterson. “We consult with them occasionally, but they’re doing the active monitoring and work for that.”

However, the DEP is in charge of regulating 246 storage tanks at the refinery, as well as the two industrial wastewater treatment facilities to which the refinery discharges its waste — including the 33,000 gallons of HF from the alkylation unit that the refinery still needs to dispose of safely.

That storage tank is the reason some investigators — including ones from the DEP, who need to examine other tanks on-site for structural integrity — haven’t had access to the site.

“The reason the exclusion zone is still the exclusion zone is largely because they want to get this material neutralized and disposed of before they clear the site,” Patterson said.

The low pH of the hydrogen fluoride solution makes it a hazard for the places into which the effluent is discharged — in this case, the Schuylkill River — so the solution has to be neutralized before it is processed by a treatment plant. 

There’s also a lot of the low pH solution, so they need to make sure the system can handle it. 

“So we have to be real careful about how much volume they put through that system at any given time,” Patterson said, “and make sure that they have the ability to hold volume and kind of slow-release to the system, so that the system does not get overwhelmed by super [low pH] material.”

The fact that 33,000 gallons of HF are still on-site concerns Williams and some of his constituents, and he expressed disappointment in the decision by the city, PES (which is the midst of bankruptcy proceedings), and Evergreen Resources Management Operations (which has been remediating the site since 2012) not to attend the hearing, even though they were invited to testify.

“The lack of Philadelphia Energy Solutions being here, the foundation which supports the remediation not being here, is scary for those of us who may be left holding the bag if they walk away from this,” Williams said.

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, WHYY.