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Philadelphia Refinery Site Declared Under Control 3 Months After Fire, Explosion

Emma Lee
Philadelphia firefighters gather at the entrance to Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery, while a large flare burns off fuel to prevent it from feeding the massive fire at the refinery.

The site of a refinery explosion and fire that rocked South Philadelphia last June and led to the refinery’s shutdown is now under control.

That means fire department personnel will no longer be on site 24-7.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said only trace amounts of the dangerous chemical hydrofluoric acid remain at the damaged Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery.

“It was a very novel event, so we were dealing with a lot of unknowns, and I’m happy we can place this under control,” Thiel said. “Although it remains a dynamic and fluid situation.”

The unit that exploded three months ago used large amounts of the toxic chemical hydrofluoric acid. That chemical posed a danger to workers and to the surrounding community in the wake of the June 21 explosion and fire.

It is one of the most poisonous industrial chemicals in use, and exposure can cause serious injury or death.

Neutralizing the majority of the chemical, about 340,000 pounds, or about 45,000 gallons, was a dangerous task and was completed at the end of August.

The remaining hydrofluoric acid, commonly known as HF, was within the unit that exploded. Theil said today marks a milestone.

“The HF still in the damaged unit was a little bit more challenging,” he said.

Theil said the city’s air monitors never detected any HF, nor any other hazardous emissions, following the explosion.

He said that while the incident is under control, there is still a risk of a small hydrocarbon leak from the damaged unit.

“That doesn’t mean the incident is over, it means that we feel like we know enough about what’s happening on site and we’ve confined all the hazards to the immediate site of the incident.”

PES has since filed for bankruptcy and laid off the majority of workers. A small team remains and is working with contractors to remediate the damaged unit. Theil said it will be about a month before all remaining hazards are cleared.

A number of federal agencies are investigating the incident, including the EPA, the Chemical Safety Board, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, OSHA and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

A public meeting on the future of the refinery will be held Wednesday night.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.