Recent Refinery Explosions Highlight Dangers of Aging Infrastructure

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Last summer’s massive explosion at a century-old refinery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has shed new light on the risk posed by aging infrastructure at many of the nation’s oil processing plants.

Pipe in PES Refinery Explosion Installed During Nixon Presidency

Before it was all-but destroyed by a series of explosions that began on June 21st, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery in Pennsylvania was the largest in the northeast.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has blamed the PES refinery explosion on a piece of corroded piping that was installed during the Nixon presidency. In the decades since its installation, the pipe was never checked – let alone replaced – even once.

That old, corroded pipe apparently led to a leak, which eventually triggered a series of explosions and toxic hydrofluoric acid releases that imperiled the lives of more than 30,000 Philadelphians living within 3-miles of the plant.

Old Refinery Infrastructure Frequently Exempt from Regulations

Unfortunately, the problem of aging refineries goes well beyond Philadelphia. According to Reuters, more than 100 facilities in the United States currently processing over 10,000 barrels of crude oil per day are, on average, 80 years old. The PES refinery and 29 others have already passed the 100-year mark.

“A lot of these refineries around the U.S. are quite old now,” Daniel Horowitz, a former managing director of the Chemical Safety Board, told Reuters. “That doesn’t mean that every single piece of equipment dates back to the founding, but they are old and eventually all sorts of components can fail.”

Unfortunately, the PES Refinery explosion wasn’t the first time aging infrastructure resulted in disaster.  Decades-old equipment was also blamed for the deadly 2010 Tesoro refinery explosion that tragically killed 7 workers in Anacortes, Washington.  Just two years later, aging infrastructure triggered another massive explosion at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California.

Although the equipment implicated in the PES, Tesoro, and Chevron disasters no longer complied with industry standards, the facilities did not necessarily violate any regulations. In fact, refineries often receive exemptions for old equipment and they’re not required to check every piece of plant machinery.

Industry Standards for Refineries Often Unenforceable

“That’s a huge problem in this sector, that a lot of codes allow grandfathered equipment to be used even if later standards would have prohibited it,” Horowitz continued.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health & Safety Administration require refineries to inspect and maintain their equipment, industry standards frequently provide the guidance on how to do so. All too often, these standards don’t have the enforcement of law.

Prior to the California and Washington explosions, for example, both refineries failed to correctly follow industry standards or — even worse – ignored them entirely. The Tesoro refinery actually managed to escape a $2.4 million fine because a federal judge determined the state couldn’t prove any enforceable regulations were violated.

“In terms of, are we making sure in some sort of holistic way that these refineries are safe, there’s nothing there,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told Reuters. “There’s sort of a vacuum.”

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