Ready to restart

When the Delaware City Refinery was shut down in 2009, it was the third strike against Delaware’s economy, but now the site is gearing up for a rebirth.

Delaware had already seen major employers like Chrysler and GM shutter their operations in the state when the news came that Valero was shutting down the refinery. But now, the University of Delaware has taken over the Chrysler site, Fisker automotive has moved into the former GM plant, and PBF Energy plans on refiring the refinery in the next few weeks.

Looking back, the outlook for the refinery’s future was grim. “It was devastating when we heard that Valero was going to close the doors,” says Delaware Governor Jack Markell (D). “I went in shortly thereafter and talked to the workers, and honestly I walked in, I was sick to my stomach.” The news stunned workers at the site like Ken Gomeringer. “It was a shock and it was a change in mindset, a lot of us that had been here for a while, never thought we’d see the day that the refinery would be shut down.”

Similar to the work done to get Fisker to take over the GM plant, Governor Markell was out in front, working the phones and urging Valero officials to leave the plant intact. “They were done, they were ready to dismantle,” says Markell. He reached out to Valero CEO Bill Klesse, “I reminded him that he didn’t want to be in a position of telling 1,000 families in Delaware that they lost their lifeline.” That convinced Valero to leave the plant intact, which made it possible for PBF Energy to purchase a functioning refinery.

The new manager of the refinery Herman Seedorf says it would have been nearly impossible to get the refinery back into production if the dismantling process had started. “Had we not had the refinery preserved and ready to be restarted as we are now, it would have been way more difficult to ever revive the Delaware City Refinery.”

Seedorf says while the restart process is getting underway, a majority of workers who have been hired at the site are returning to their old jobs. “We’re about close to 85 to 90 percent done on our hiring, we have all of our operations and maintenance folks, and we’re continuing to bring some of our technical support folks and other staff in here just to complete the process.”

And while many of the employees working on restarting the refinery are the same, the way the facility is operated will not be the same, and it starts with lower emissions of Nitrogen Oxides, or NOX. The facility’s permit will allow for 2,500 tons of NOX emissions per year, that’s half of the 5,000 tons per year under the previous permit. “That’s also the best this refinery has ever achieved in its history,” says Seedorf.  Over the next three to four years, that 2,500 tons will drop to about 1,650 tons, or about two-thirds of what the refinery has been allowed to emit under previous owners.  “It will be operated in a much more environmentally friendly manner going forward,” says Seedorf.

The new owners will not operate the refinery’s “gasifier”, which under previous owners, generated power for the facility using a by-product of the refining process for power. But poor reliability of the gasifier led to frequent shut-downs resulting in environmental releases and other negative impacts. Using natural gas to power parts of the facility instead of the gasifier will help the refinery run with more stability. “That’s very key to a refining operation,” says Seedorf. “If you can keep a refinery operating steadily, reliably without a lot of ups and downs and a lot of upsets, everything is better. The safety of the refinery is better. The environmental performance of the refinery is better. The financial performance of the refinery is better.”

Local residents in Delaware City will welcome better environmental performance, but no one who attended a town hall meeting with refinery leaders questioned them about the site’s environmental performance. State Representative Valerie Longhurst (D- Bear) was at that meeting earlier this month, and says those questions could be coming. “They didn’t really have as much questions, but I think in six months if we come back, they’ll have more questions once the start up [happens].”

For workers, there is an eagerness to get things going. “Everybody is kind of anxious to see oil flowing through the pipes, and get to a sense of normalcy, get the place up and running,” says Gomeringer. But the process of restarting a refinery that’s been dormant for over a year is a delicate one, and it’s something PBF officials say they will not rush. “We’re going to make sure that everything we do is and every step we take has been examined and thought through from a safety standpoint,” says Seedorf. “That is absolutely our number one priority. Make sure that we have no events, and we do nothing that could cause any community impacts or environmental impacts.”

Seedorf says he understands that residents have heard promises of cleaner operations from previous owners, and says PBF will let the public judge the refinery by its actions. “It is critical that we gain the trust of the community. It’s more than words, you have to demonstrate it every day. That’s not to say that we’re not going to have our challenges, but over time, hopefully we can demonstrate that we know what we’re doing, and the community will value us as good partners.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.