Delaware City Refinery future: Does it have to be jobs versus the environment?

    Tuesday’s meeting in Delaware City over the renewal of pollution permits for the refinery there has produced some thoughts from Doug Rainey, editor and chief content officer of Delaware Business Bulletin and Delaware Business Daily.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    I did not attend all of the events surrounding the recent public hearing over an overall permit to operate the Delaware City Refinery, owned by PBF Energy.

    But after spending a couple of hours in the area, I had to admit that the scene tugged at my emotions as a child of the ’60s, the son of a member of the United Steel Workers and a neighbor who endured odors that came with the refinery and chemical complex outside Delaware City.

    Earlier, a rally had been held by PBF, the New Jersey-based company that rescued the refinery from the wrecking ball a few years ago, after former owner Valero racked up losses of $1 million a day during the economic downturn.

    PR battle

    By most accounts, PBF is a smart, no-nonsense operator of the refinery. It is equally clear PBF knows how to play hardball on the public relations front.

    As the hearing approached, it became clear that environmental groups would not be standing on the sidelines and seemed likely to bring in a large number of refinery critics to the hearing, including a contingent from Washington, D.C.

    PBF responded with its own rally and a letter claiming opponents simply wanted to shut down the refinery.

    The police presence was everywhere as squad cars surrounded buses and flashed their lights at various locations along the route.

    Workers were bused to the Delaware City Fire Co. hall, some dressed in blue jumpsuits. Dozens of police were at the scene and hazmat trucks from throughout the county were parked a couple of blocks away.

    It seemed like overkill, or perhaps an abundance of caution by police over the remote possibility that extremists might be somewhere on the fringes.  It is true that issues such as natural gas fracking and environmental extremism have caught the attention of Hollywood in movies that are not afraid to stretch the facts to make a point.

    Police were calm and professional as they were given the task of dealing with more than 1,000 people, who far out-numbered the number of seats in the fire hall.

    The scene appeared to put the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Green Party and other groups that want changes in the permit on the defensive.

    Making their case

    Amy Roe, a committee chair for the Sierra Club, who has jump started the once quiet group, made it clear she had no beef with the United Steel Workers, who represent the rank and file at the refinery.

    She did have problems over the decision to hold the hearing at the fire hall, seeing it as a way to disenfranchise those outside the building. After her plea, the period for public comments was extended by a month.

    Roe and other speakers pressed for further disclosure of emissions and more efforts to control the flaring that occurs when equipment fails and sulfur dioxide is released into the air while entering detailed objections into the record.

    Refinery workers and officials were sometimes more passionate in stating their case, talking about the pain of losing jobs when Valero closed the refinery and not hiding the anger over what they saw as a group of people with an agenda that would again lead to layoffs. The refinery typically employs more than 1,000 directly and through contractors and has the economic impact of one of the state’s now-closed auto plants.

    PBF was portrayed again and again as the best operator of the refinery, which has had a half a dozen owners during its half-century of existence.

    PBF is likely the smartest, jumping on the opportunity to nail down lower cost crude oil by buying rail cars and coming up with a circular unloading site that form a pipeline of sorts to the Delaware City Refinery.

    Along the way, PBF compiled a good environmental record in operating the refinery and a decent reputation in the community.

    Quality of life

    In my little corner of Bear, the days when odors hung around the area are mostly gone. Granted, this does not mean pollutants and health risks have disappeared, but things are much better from a quality of life standpoint.

    Then again, I come with a built-in bias. I grew up in a copper mining town in Arizona and you come to understand that extracting minerals is a tough and dangerous business. The sulfur smoke from the smelter killed my mother’s roses and over Christmas damaged paint on cars and I am sure others suffered from various illnesses and conditions.

    At the same time, nuclear fallout passed over my community from above-ground tests in my early years. Things have improved since that time, thanks, in part, to activists who pressed for change.

    Over the years, the smelter and other types of pollution, both air and water were cleaned up through the agreements and permitting process that is used for Delaware City. Never mind, that smelters across the border in Mexico and elsewhere operated without pollution controls and put many U.S. mine employees out of work when copper prices dropped.

    In return, mines and refineries provided jobs with decent pay and the chance for upward mobility. Many of us went on to college and some took leadership positions in Arizona. I am sure the Delaware City Refinery, over the years, provided that rung on the ladder.

    Legacy at Delaware City

    Making the situation more complex here is a legacy that came from multiple ownerships, decades of operating problems, regulatory neglect and the difficult task of refining heavy and light crude grades from all over the world. Interestingly enough, the current ownership is comprised of many key staffers at Premcor, a refiner that owned Delaware City and sold it at a big profit.

    The current request for a Title V permit works to consolidate layers of permits. It is no surprise that opponents seized on in making their case over what they saw as the refinery and the state not following the rules over one pollutant. That’s according to a News Journal story. Other objections over Coastal Zone Act and other provisions will also crop up.

    The issues, while worth further discussion, have to be placed within the context of efforts to reduce overall pollution at the refinery. Permitting cannot be allowed to become a roulette wheel, with no room for flexibility as long as the overall goal is to reduce emissions.

    Given its operating record, Delaware City Refinery deserves some flexibility.

    Longer term, plans for $1 billion clean fuels investment in the refinery that was delayed when $50 million or more was spent on the rail unloading system should be placed on the front burner. A part of the project should be even more dramatic declines in emissions, coupled with tax and other incentives that clear the way for construction of high-tech refineries.

    A refinery of the future that is part of the nation’s effort to rebuild its neglected infrastructure would be one more way for Delaware to assert its ability to attract and retain world class businesses, even those that come with environmental baggage.

    Doug Rainey has been a business journalist in Delaware for 25 years. He currently is editor and chief content officer for Delaware Business Daily and the Delaware Business Bulletin, based near Newark. He can be reached at, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

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