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What Causes Oil Refinery Explosions?

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What Causes Oil Refinery Explosions?

Since Samuel Kier’s first U.S. oil refinery converted crude oil into lamp oil in Pittsburgh in 1853, petroleum refining in the U.S. has become big business. By 2014, the U.S. had become the largest net exporter of refined petroleum. By January 2019, the U.S. boasted 132 operating petroleum refineries across 30 states.

Oil refineries separate crude oil taken from the earth into products we can use, like motor and diesel fuels, jet fuels, lubricants, plastics, synthetic fibers, and chemicals. Most of these important downstream processing plants operate 24/7 and can process hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil a day.

On average, an oil refinery can turn a 42-gallon barrel of crude oil into 20 gallons of gasoline, 12 gallons of diesel fuel, 4 gallons of jet fuel, and residual liquids used to make asphalt, wax, tar, plastics and other chemicals.

Modern refineries use fractional distillation to separate crude oil hydrocarbons into heavy and light fractions, which are then further processed into useful products and chemicals.

Crude oil distillation and vacuum distillation units first desalt and distill incoming crude into fractions by the different boiling points. Then, naphtha hydrotreaters and catalytic reformers produce reformate – a component of gasoline. Fluid catalytic crackers and hydrocrackers convert heavy fractions into lighter products. Other processes act to desulfurize materials and remove mercaptans like caustic washing and sweetening.

Heavy residual oils can be converted to gasoline and fuel via coking units. Other oil refinery units like cooling towers, boiler plants, electrical plants, ventilation systems, wastewater treatment systems, storage tanks, and liquified gas (“LPG”) storage vessels also function on-site as part of the refinery.

A combination of heavy equipment, electricity, high temperatures, and flammable liquids make for a dangerous working environment. Despite tightened safety regulations and advances in technology, oil refinery explosions continue to occur – seriously injuring oil refinery workers and damaging the environment.

Recent U.S. Oil Refinery Explosions 

On July 23, 1984, at the Union Oil Co. refinery in Romeoville, Illinois, a 34-ton, 62-foot steel amine absorber tower exploded, killing 19 oil refinery workers. Earlier that day, a hairline crack was seen in a weld on the tower. As workers closed the tower’s pressure valve, a spark ignited escaping gases causing a massive explosion. Investigators found the 14-year-old tower had been repaired several times over the years, and the steel may have been weakened by hydrogen embrittlement, potentially allowing it to crack under pressure.

On May 5, 1988, at the Shell Oil Refinery in Norco, Louisiana, a catalytic cracking unit (CCU) exploded, killing seven refinery workers and injuring 42. Investigators suspect that a sudden gas leak from a corroded vapor line within the CCU ignited by the unit’s superheater furnace caused the explosion.

On March 23, 2005, at the BP Refinery in Texas City, Texas, a 170-ft tall BP refinery raffinate splitter tower was overfilled during an isomerization (“ISOM”) unit startup, allowing flammable liquid to escape through pressure relief valves from an old blowdown stack that was never equipped with a flare. This caused a massive explosion that killed 15 refinery employees and injured 180 others. Investigators suspect an idling truck nearby ignited the flammable vapor.

On June 21, 2019, at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining and Marketing (“PES”) Refinery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an alkylation unit explosion released over 5,200 pounds of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid into the air and injuring five workers. Investigators found a 46-year old elbow pipe that had corroded down to just 0.012 inches thick allowed flammable fluid to leak, creating a vapor cloud that ignited the alkylation unit containing highly flammable hydrocarbons.

Many cases of oil refinery explosions are completely avoidable when proper precautions and risk mitigation are in place. For example, U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators reported several disturbing events combined to cause the 2005 BP Texas City Refinery explosion:

  • Tower level indicators malfunctioned
  • High-level alarms malfunctioned
  • Secondary safety devices were absent
  • ISOM operators had worked 12-hour shifts for 29 or more consecutive days
  • Inadequate supervisory oversight during ISOM startup
  • Inadequate operator training due
  • Poor communication during shift turnover
  • Insufficient blowdown drum size to contain liquid from pressure relief valves
  • Incomplete relief valve system safety studies
  • Failure to replace blowdown drums and atmospheric stacks after OSHA cited as unsafe because not connected to a flare (Flares convert flammable vapors to less hazardous materials).
  • Trailers, where workers were killed, were located too close to the ISOM unit
  • Managers failed to remove nonessential personnel from areas in and around ISOM units during startup

Investigators reported that many of these events would not have been present but for the actions and inaction on the part of the company and contractors. For example:

  • To cut costs, companies reduced training staff and eliminated training simulators
  • Previously reported malfunctions of the tower level indicator and a pressure control valve went ignored
  • Eight serious incidents involving release of flammable materials from ISOM blowdown stack went uninvestigated
  • Personnel checked off on procedural and safety policy requirements even when those requirements had not been met
  • Safety goals and rewards focused on safety metrics rather than process and management safety systems. Some personnel feared retaliation for reporting safety concerns

Proper inspection, testing, maintenance, and repair of refinery equipment and systems is critical to worker safety. Automated refinery safety systems and training protocols have evolved from decades of chemical and engineering advancement within the petroleum industry and lessons from historic, catastrophic incidents – saving hundreds of lives and improving refinery safety overall.

When a company drops the ball - cutting costs and side-stepping important safety measures - workers are injured, and lives are lost. Oil refinery company negligence can cause refinery workers to suffer toxic chemical exposure (“BTEX”), severe burns, machine accidents, ergonomic injuries, falls, refinery vehicle accidents, loss of limbs, vision loss, hearing loss, and death.

Warning signs of potential dangers almost always occur in advance of these accidents. Cost-cutting and production pressures can cause company officials to ignore these signs and hope for the best. When company officials fail to intervene, they are acting with negligence and must be held accountable.

If you or a loved one were injured in an oil refinery accident, your injuries were likely both predictable and preventable – meaning you are owed financial compensation. 

Our Williams Attorneys refinery worker injury lawyers maximize compensation for plant and refinery workers injured in North Dakota oil refineries and plants, including Marathon Petroleum Company’s Mandan Refinery, the Tesoro Refinery, the Dakota Prairie Refinery in Dickinson, Meridian Energy’s Davis Refinery, Dakota Oil Processing in Trenton, the Tesoro Refinery, Gackle Co-Op Oil Co., Oil States Energy Services in Williston, Nesson Gathering Inc. in Tioga, and Calfrac Well Services Corporation in Williston.

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Ryan Williams

Ryan Williams helps seriously injured victims, and in cases of catastrophic personal injury when someone else is at fault, get full financial compensation for medical bills, financial losses, and pain and suffering.

To connect with Ryan: [hidden email]
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