South Philly refinery fire extinguished; city continues to monitor air quality

Updated: 1:38 p.m. Sunday 

A massive explosion that rocked the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery in South Philadelphia early Friday morning has been extinguished, city officials confirmed on Sunday.

Fires raged throughout Friday morning at the 150-year-old industrial complex at 3100 W. Passyunk Ave. The refinery is located along the Schuylkill River, just south of Girard Estates and next to FDR Park.

The city’s Office of Emergency Management and the Philadelphia Fire Department said in a release sent Sunday that the fire was extinguished Saturday afternoon. The gas valve that fueled the fire was shut off and the butane tank related to the explosion has been isolated.

Fire and public health officials will continue to monitor air quality in the area surrounding the refinery, the release said. And while the cause of the blaze is still unknown, an investigation into its origin will start Monday morning by several agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the city’s Fire Marshal’s Office.

“It’s gonna be a pretty long and drawn out process,” said Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy at a Friday afternoon press conference.

The city has also convened a cross-agency working group to explore improving safety and community protocols at the facility.

Public health advocates have called for deeper investigation into fire’s cause and impact. After receiving a request from the Clean Air Council, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, a federal agency, will deploy a four-person team to investigate the explosion.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health said in a statement that preliminary air sampling at the refinery and adjacent sites has shown no ambient carbon monoxide, combustible hydrocarbons or hydrogen sulfide.

PES said it recorded four minor injuries to workers, all of whom were treated on site by company medical staff.

Firefighters continue to battle flames at the PES refinery. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Nearby residents heard and felt explosions and saw flames shooting into the sky, turning night into day.

“It looked like the sun was coming up early,” said Damon Hudgens, 26, who works at an airport parking lot. “But you looked to your left it was just a big ball of fire. It just kept rising up and sprawling out.”

No evacuation orders were issued. There was an early shelter-in-place order for residents east of the refinery, but it was lifted around 7 a.m.

We’ll be updating this story as more details come to light. Here’s what we know about the blast and its aftermath.

What we know

  • There were three separate explosions. which happened at approximately 4 a.m., PES said in a statement.
  • The structure impacted is what’s known as an “alkylation unit,” per the statement.
  • Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy originally said it was a butane vat that exploded. PES later said it believed propane was the main fuel that caught fire. At a Friday afternoon press conference, Murphy confirmed that “a mix of propane and butane” were continuing to feed the flames.
  • Refinery owner Philadelphia Energy Solutions has its own fire brigade, and when Fire Dept. responders arrived on scene around 4:45 a.m., they were already beginning work to isolate the fire.
  • The blaze escalated to 3 alarms, and the Fire Dept. deployed 51 apparatus and 120 responders to the scene.
  • PFD cannot put out the fire without the OK from PES, Murphy said on Friday afternoon, explaining that extinguishing without the right precautions carried the risk that whatever is inside the burning tank would “blow right into the atmosphere.”
  • Four minor injuries to PES workers on site are the only injuries reported so far.
  • Homes as far away at South Jersey were shaken by the boom, according to NBC10.
  • Multiple SEPTA bus routes have been diverted because of the fire.
  • The Schuylkill Expressway was briefly shut down, but has reopened.
  • The Passyunk Avenue Bridge and Penrose Avenue Bridge were also originally shut down; the former reopened at 6 a.m. and the latter at 7:10 a.m., PES said.
  • The refining complex is still operating, but it’s running at a reduced rate, per PES.

What we don’t know

  • What caused the fire. It’s the second fire at the refinery in one month, following a June 10 fire in which no injuries were reported.
  • What effect the smoke will have on the air quality in Philadelphia, or how long the smoke will linger. Preliminary testing on Friday morning showed no ambient carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons (combustibles), or hydrogen sulfide, according to the Philly Health Department.

Some who saw the blast say they’re worried about residual effects.

“We still imagine what it’s gonna be to our body system,” said Stanley Nwandiko, who works nearby at a valet service. “If it’s harmful that’s something of concern to me.”

Other longtime residents downplayed fears.

“I think it’s pretty scary, it being so close to home. But I don’t think any real damage can come of anything except for the refinery really,” said Vincent Gugliamo, 49, who lives about two miles east of the blast site.

Reaction from officials

Some elected officials have been weighing in on social media.

Background on the refinery

The PES refinery is one of the oldest and largest on the East Coast, and turns up to 350,000 barrels of raw crude oil into gasoline, jet fuel, heating oil, diesel, and chemicals every day. Once owned by Sunoco, the refinery was once on the verge of closure until the shale boom unleashed record-breaking amounts of cheap, domestic oil and gas.

The refinery is also Philadelphia’s single-largest source of particulate pollution.

For residents who have any concerns, the PES Community Information Hotline is available at 215-339-7300 for updates on the status of the refining complex. PES has also set up a number for residents to report any damage from the incident at 1-‪800-899-1844‬.

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