Video: Giant Explosion Hits Philadelphia Refinery

Still from bystander video via social media (Twitter)

Published Jun 21, 2019 2:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

A large explosion shook the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refining complex early Friday morning, sending a fireball and flying debris high over the Schuylkill River.

The Philadelphia Fire Department said that the fire had ignited a vat of butane, a volatile fuel used for cigarette lighters and lightweight portable stoves. "It was burning inside the vat and it's pretty much contained to that vat right now," said Philadelphia Fire Dept. Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy at a press conference Friday.

No serious injuries were reported. As of Friday evening the fire was contained but still burning as the refinery's staff worked to isolate product piping. 

PES is the largest and longest-running refinery facility on the Eastern seaboard, and the tenth-largest in the United States. The Atlantic Petroleum Company began using its Point Breeze site for refining in 1870; Gulf Oil built another refinery next door at Girard Point in 1936, and Sunoco consolidated both into one facility in 1995. Today the site has a capacity of more than 330,000 barrels per day. 

PES is still part-owned by Sunoco, which entered into a partnership with Carlyle Group in 2012 in an attempt to turn around the business. However, the oil price crash of 2015-16 took a heavy toll on its bottom line. It emerged from a bankruptcy reorganization last year, and a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Kleinman Center for Energy Policy warned that it may enter Chapter 11 again by 2022, when large debts will mature. It faces additional challenges related to the age of its facilities, which are less capable and reliable compared to its competitors, the Kleinman Center wrote. The 1,300-acre site has been used for refining for 150 years, and if the refinery should close, it will require extensive remediation before it can be used for other purposes.