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

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. It was the second fire at the refinery in two weeks. 

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.

The June 21 blaze touched one of PES' alkylation units, where crude oil is converted into fuels catalyzed by hydrofluoric acid, one of the most dangerous toxins used in the refinery. The acid can drift for miles as a gas and pose serious health risks if inhaled or otherwise consumed.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health said in a statement that none of the acid escaped in the fire. A preliminary air sampling at the refinery and adjacent sites showed no ambient carbon monoxide, combustible hydrocarbons or hydrogen sulfide, officials said. 

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 zip codes that encmpass the refinery and surrounding neighborhoods have some of the city's highest rates of asthma. The refinery is the city's single largest source of particulate pollution, which is linked to higher rates of breathing problems including asthma. 

David, Masur, the executive director of PennEnvironment, an advocacy organization, said nearby residents have lived with the refinery's hazards long enough. On Friday, Philadelphia  narrowly escaped a major disaster, the South Philadelphia resident said. "It’s time for action to protect our communities from these high-risk facilities." 

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

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