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Fire-Destroyed Refinery: What went wrong

A thinning piece of metal pipe that had not been tested for corrosion led to a colossal blaze at one of Philadelphia Energy Solutions' most dangerous fuel-producing units, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said in a report.

The pipe fitting gave way around 4:00 a.m. ET (0800 GMT) on June 21, releasing more than 3,200 pounds of highly toxic chemical hydrofluoric acid (HF) into the atmosphere, the CSB said.

That led to three separate explosions that hurled pieces of the refinery across the nearby Schuylkill River and onto highways, causing a blaze that was visible for miles, and destroyed an alkylation unit that treats HF.

No one was killed in the explosion, and only five minor injuries were reported. However, Philadelphia Energy Solutions filed for bankruptcy a month later and shut down the 335,000 barrel-per day refinery, the largest on the U.S. East Coast.

“Though the main tank holding HF was not breached, HF was a component of the process fluid released from the alkylation unit. We are lucky there were no serious injuries or fatalities,” said CSB Interim Director Kristen Kulinowski, in a statement.

The report confirms what sources told Reuters in August, that the company was expected to say that hydrofluoric acid was released during the incident. HF can burn the eyes, skin and lungs, and can be fatal.

A process operator at the plant quickly activated a fail-safe that dumped a large quantity of HF into a protected vessel so that more of that fuel did not ignite, CSB said.

The metal composition of the pipe, including copper and nickel, did not meet industry standards, the agency said.

After the blast, the thinnest portion of the pipe fitting was found to be half the thickness of a credit card, said CSB, a non-regulatory federal agency.

The Chemical Safety Board, which has no regulatory or enforcement power, is authorized under the U.S. Clean Air Act to determine the cause of chemical plant explosions and fires and to make recommendations to prevent them in the future.

While the broader pipe system in the destroyed unit had been periodically measured for thickness to detect corrosion, the individual ruptured piece had not been inspected, the CSB said.

Additional reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Bernadette Baum

Groups vying for refinery prepare to visit fire-damaged site

Groups vying for the idled Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery have entered the second phase of the bidding process and are gearing up for visits to the plant, sources said.

Roughly a dozen parties are in the running to buy the refinery, a source familiar with the situation said, pitching various uses for the fire-damaged facility that has been used to store and process fossil fuels for the last 150 years.

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