Investigators scrutinizing BP Cherry Point refinery fire

Published on Wed, Feb 22, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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State investigators have begun looking into the fire that shut down the BP Cherry Point refinery last week, with final conclusions expected in six months.

Fire crews from several different agencies worked throughout the afternoon of February 17 to extinguish the fire at the northern portion of the refinery. No injuries were reported as a result of the fire, but BP officials did evacuate approximately 100 workers from the facility.

Smoke could be seen billowing from the refinery from several miles away as flames shot into the air. Dean Herbert, who lives in the Birch Point area, said he first noticed the fire at about 2 p.m. as he was working in his garden.

“Initially, it was massive,” Herbert said.

North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) sent two fire crews to the scene, and Fire District 7, which covers Ferndale and the refinery itself, sent nearly their whole company, NWFR division chief Henry Hollander said. Crews from the smaller Fire District 17, which covers the Sandy Point area, also responded.

While Hollander did not personally see the fire, he said crews reported back to him that the flames were massive. The fire was reported out at about 3:30 p.m.

“The first [NWFR fire] engine called back and said it was big,” Hollander said.

BP spokesman Bill Kidd said a faulty flange connection may have caused the conflagration, but investigators say it is too early to definitively determine the cause. The majority of crude oil and finished fuel production at the site has stopped, since the damaged unit was one of the first steps in fuel processing.

Kidd said the main issue for BP officials right now is making sure enough fuel from the refinery’s reserves gets distributed to consumers across the state.

“Gas stations are not going to run out of fuel overnight,” Kidd said.

Officials from the state Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency said no oil or polluted runoff has reached waters outside the refinery. State officials took air samples around the perimeter and downwind of the facility to help ensure the safety of nearby residents but found no air quality issues.

Hector Castro, a spokesman with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, said state investigators were first able to get on scene Tuesday but were required to wear protective clothing due to lingering asbestos in the area. The investigation will include requesting documents from BP officials and interviewing BP workers in addition to on-site inspections. Investigators have six months to complete their work, and Castro predicts they will need all of that time.

The BP Cherry Point refinery was fined $69,200 in May 2010 after inspectors found 13 separate safety violations at a unit that refines low-grade oil into gasoline. The violations included failure to routinely inspect or maintain safety control devices, such as pressure safety valves, and inaccurate or outdated instrument diagrams.

Castro said the 2010 violations had nothing to do with the processing unit that caught fire last week. All the refineries in the state have had issues similar to those revealed at the BP Cherry Point refinery in 2010, Castro said.

Soon after the citations were issued, BP officials announced they would pay the full fine and work toward correcting the problems. Castro said this work still continues, as some of the issues could take years to fully correct.

The BP Cherry Point refinery employs 848 full-time workers and contract employees. The refinery can process 230,000 barrels of crude oil a day. It supplies most of the aviation fuel for airports in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver and is responsible for 20 percent of the gasoline sold in Washington.