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    Refinery Danger: What You Need To Do in a Crude Oil Emergency

    What would happen if the Philadelphia Oil Refinery had an incident? Do you know what to do if there was a shale oil train explosion?

    Whether you’ve considered these questions before, Philadelphia is in a danger zone. MNN declared Philadelphia one of the 7 worst neighborhoods near refineries, noting “Sunoco’s Philadelphia refinery is just down the Schuylkill River from downtown Philly. Processing 335,000 barrels of oil a day, the plant is the seventh largest in the U.S.” After all, refineries are “smelly, polluted places” as MNN says.

    So being that we’re so close to one of the largest refineries, what were to happen if there was a disaster in Philadelphia?

    Plus, refineries aren’t the only danger: we run and bike by Oil Trains every day in Philly.

    We looked into various concerns around both rail AND PES refinery incidents, which are both liabilities in Philadelphia.

    background on the PES Philadelphia Refining Complex

    According to the PES website, the PES Philadelphia Refining Complex has been around South Philly since 1866. Originally used to create kerosene for home & business lights back in the day (even pre-car era), could store 50,000 barrels.

    Once good ol’ Henry Ford created the Model T in 1908, he paved the way (pun intended) for Point Breeze to manufacture gasoline for stations by 1915.

    Almost 150 years later, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) formed as a partnership between The Carlyle Group and Sunoco Inc. The largest oil refining complex on the US Eastern seaboard “now operates as a refining complex made up of the two domestic refineries – Girard Point and Point Breeze – with a combined processing rate of 335,000 barrels a day (14 million U.S. gallons) of crude oil.” 14 million US gallons of oil PER DAY, happening in our city.

    PES Community Alert Siren System

    This caught my attention because the ReadyPhiladelphia email (and text) alerts mentioned a community alert siren on August 1st. So what’s the deal?

    “Community Alert Siren System is intended for residents and businesses in South and Southwest Philadelphia nearest the refinery to advise everyone what to do when the sirens sound.”

    Cherice Corley, the Senior Public Affairs & Communications Manager at Philadelphia Energy Solutions. She said the sirens have been in place for about 10 years (since 2006) and are tested every month on the first Saturday.

    However, the alarm sirens only go off in these areas:

    Sirens located across South & Southwest Philadelphia in these locations:

    • Pepper Middle School, 82nd and Lyons
    • Eastwick Library, Island Ave. & Lindbergh
    • Finnegan’s Playground, 70th and Grovers
    • Connell Park, 65th & Grays
    • Bartram’s Village, 56th and Lindbergh
    • Recreation Center, 48th & Woodland
    • Fire House, 32nd and Grays Ferry
    • JFK Annex, 25th & Morris
    • Passyunk Library, 20th and Shunk
    • FDR Park, 20th and Pattison
    • PES Refining Complex, 28th & Passyunk

    The alert system started by Sunoco, who chose the areas to place the sirens. According to Corley, the siren system is a joint effort between the PES Refinery and the City of Philadelphia. The Fire  Department can sound the alarm if there’s a catastrophic event anywhere in the city.

    According to Michael Roles of Clean Water Action, hazardous chemicals would likely travel north and east from the refinery (pending weather patterns and golf streams.) But if you’re outside the siren zone, you’re going to have to depend on email or smartphone alerts to be notified about an incident.


    Recent testimony in City Council criticized the hundreds of thousands people within the evacuation zone in Philadelphia, without knowledge of risk or what to do in case of an accident.

    So if there was a release from the refining complex, an oil-related rail spill or truck accident nearby, here’s the current plan.

    The Shelter-in-Place protocol goes as follows:

    1. Do NOT PANIC BUT go inside immediately.
    2. Close all doors & windows
    3. Turn off ventilation systems.
    4. Go to an easily sealed room and stay there.
    5. Tune Radio to KYW 1060 (AM) for instructions.
    6. Wait for the “ALL CLEAR” Broadcast.

    So apparently DON’T PANIC, try to stay somewhere you can’t breathe in anything from outside, assume this area has a radio and just wait. Perfect.

    What if you wanted to escape the city? 

    Philadelphia does have evacuation routes on a city website, which depicts pedestrian, mass transit and private vehicle routes. However, it’s not very descriptive beyond the map.

    How Likely is a crude oil incident?

    Refinery Risk.

    On the refinery front: The Philadelphia Girard Point facility had a large fire in May 2015 due to mechanical problems, which was the 3rd incident this year alone.

    Although we didn’t find specific numbers in Philly, “The Environmental Protection Agency – which deals with refinery spills and toxic gas releases – says no other industry suffers as many catastrophic incidents involving hazardous chemicals as refineries.” There were 28 refinery fires in 2012 out of 140 plants. Local communities are at risk, since “hydrogen fluoride, used to increase gasoline octane levels and capable of spreading death throughout neighborhoods if it escapes into the air, are regularly used in refineries.”

    Just look at Torrance, CA.

    Oil Train Problem Potential.

    Problems with oil trains have caused havoc in the past few years. Quebec suffered a major incident when 74 oil train cars exploded, burning the downtown and killing 47 people. A train car incident in North Dakota in December 2013 evacuated everyone in a 5-mile radius to escape the fumes. Plus, residents in West Virginia had to turn to bottled water after a crude oil train derailed along the Kanawha River.

    As we mentioned in an earlier post, shale oil (CSX) train cars pass through Philadelphia two to three times daily, often to be shipped overseas. There have been two derailments in the past 1.5 years (Jan 2014 and Jan 2015). Plus, there are have been at least 65 (minor) incidents in Philadelphia with tank cars containing “loose, leaking or missing safety components”.

    Are you close to the blast zone? This Oil train Blast Zone website shows your risk based on zip code. However, a recent PA study mentioned a variety of risks on PA rails, as 60 or 70 trains carrying crude oil travel through PA every day.

    I asked Dr. Allan M Zarembski, PE & Research Professor and Director Railroad Engineering and Safety Program of University of Delaware about the likelihood of an accident in Philadelphia. Although he hasn’t conducted a specific risk for Philadelphia, he calculated his estimate by the numbers:

    “No good methodology exists for calculating specific accident risk in a given location. Noting that the US average derailment rate for main line derailments is less than 1 accident per million train miles.  Assuming track length in Philadelphia of the order of 10 miles, the resulting accident risk would be of the order of  1 derailment every 100,000 trains. If total train traffic is approximately 2,000 to 4,000 trains  per year, and 20% of this is oil trains, then that would give 1 derailment every 120 to 250 years.”

    This excludes numbers like infrastructure, etc. According to Matt Walker of Clean Air Council, Philadelphia hasn’t looked into a risk assessment specifically.

    “Has a risk assessment been done? The answer is no. Do we need to do one? Yes, definitely.”

    What to Do as a Philadelphia Resident to prepare for a refinery incident

    • Sign up for ReadyPhiladelphia Alerts on the OEM (Office of Emergency Management) website here. 
    • Learn your evacuation route in case you need to leave the city. It’s on this evacuation route plan, which sorta kinda makes sense when you read it.
    • Create an emergency kit with drinking water, towels, a flashlight/extra batteries, portable battery-operated radio, two rolls of duct tape and scissors, First aid kit & pre-cut plastic sheets for windows and doors. (This is according to the pamphlet). Families should practice for the Shelter-in-Place protocols like they would for a fire drill.
    • Create an emergency kit for your pet too.

    Technology: Blessing And A curse

    A big piece missing from this puzzle? How low-income Philadelphians (without access to computers or smartphones) would receive these alert messages in an emergency. Philadelphia has a high level of poverty and this plan is heavily reliant on technology.

    As Roles pointed out, there’s not much public knowledge about what to do in these emergency situations and when an evacuation would be necessary.

    A pamphlet is distributed in South Philly every couple of years (according to Corley) that states the sirens would sound if there was an “Extremely Hazardous Substance” from the refinery or a truck/railroad accident released hazardous materials, when a shelter-in-place order has been issued.

    Notably absent from the PES website is this pamphlet or any information from it, which was emailed to me. Instead, the website says:

    To respond immediately to emergencies at our facilities, PES maintains an Emergency Response organization. This includes security, fire, safety, health and environmental specialists who are trained to respond to various emergencies that might occur in our plants. We believe the most effective process for handling an emergency incident is to be prepared and trained before an incident ever occurs. We work closely with the City of Philadelphia Fire and Police Departments, plus the Office of Emergency Management and the Local Emergency Planning Committee.

    How do you have an emergency plan (that involves the public) but isn’t actually on the website? PES is dealing with hazardous materials and crude oil. If an incident occurs, it may need advance warning outside of the PES facility?


    Philadelphia could have a crude oil incident – by rail or refinery – or we could be fine. In case of an incident, we may have to stay put in our homes or escape the city.

    The only clear thing we know at this point is that the City of Philadelphia hasn’t communicated much of their plans to the public, nor communicated the danger close to many of our residents. Residents don’t know what to do IF an incident did occur. And we’re getting tons of crude oil in our city every day.

    When will we get answers?

    Photo: PES Newsroom

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    Julie Hancher

    About Julie Hancher

    Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake.

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