Philly Fire Department personnel no longer at PES refinery site 24/7

Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery on August 8, 2019. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery on August 8, 2019. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

The site of a refinery explosion and fire that rocked South Philadelphia in June and led to the refinery’s shutdown is now under control. That means Philadelphia Fire Department personnel will no longer remain on site 24/7.

Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said Tuesday that 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,” said Thiel. “Although it remains a dynamic and fluid situation.”

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

Hydrofluoric acid 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 that was completed at the end of August.

The remaining hydrofluoric acid, commonly known as HF, was within the unit that exploded. The fire commissioner said his announcement that the site is now under control marks a milestone.

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

The city’s air monitors never detected any HF, nor any other hazardous emissions, since the explosion, he said.

Thiel says a risk of a small hydrocarbon leak from the damaged unit remains, although the incident is now “under control.”

“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,” he said.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions 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. Thiel said it will be about a month before all remaining hazards are cleared.

A number of federal agencies are investigating June’s explosion and fire, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Chemical Safety Board, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Pennsylvania’s  Department of Environmental Protection is also investigating.

A public meeting on the future of the refinery is scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Preparatory Charter School, 1928 Point Breeze Ave.

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