Few episodes better illustrate the complicated tensions overshadowing the climate change debate than an oil refinery closure in Pennsylvania last month. At around 4 a.m. on Friday, June 21, a massive fire and explosion rocked the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia. The explosion shook houses and apartment buildings on the other side of the city. The ball of fire could be seen for miles, turning the predawn sky orange. As the fire raged, members of the refinery’s Emergency Response Team overcame every human instinct to bolt from the scene, and instead, they ran toward the fire. They battled the blaze for hours; by 10 a.m. the fire was contained, though still burning.
Like anyone who is familiar with refinery operations, Jim Savage, an operator at PES and a union activist, knew the intense danger that the emergency responders faced. “I’ve always questioned their sanity, but their courage and professionalism has never been in doubt,” Savage posted on his Facebook page. “Those explosions were terrifying and I have no idea how we didn’t have injuries or even worse.”
It took a full day to fully extinguish the fire. And while there were no casualties out of the explosion, the outcome had the potential of becoming far more deadly.
Unit 433, the Alkylation unit where the explosion occurred, uses hydrofluoric acid as part of the refining process. It is by far the most dangerous chemical in the facility — it quickly penetrates human tissue and interferes with the nerve function so burns may initially not feel painful, giving people a false sense of safety. It volatilizes at a relatively low temperature and travels as a dense vapor cloud — PES reports that the chemical supply stored at the South Philadelphia refinery could travel as far as seven miles, putting as many as a million people at risk.
There were as many as 71 tons of the toxic substance at the facility, according to its most recent emergency response plan. But instead of wreaking havoc on the city and endangering the lives of tens of thousands of people, an operator at the refinery’s central control room transferred the hydrofluoric…