Refinery inferno probe: why didn’t lightning rods work? Hotline for damage claims

Posted: July 12, 2007

Authorities today were investigating why lightning ground rods weren't enough to stop a spectacular South Jersey refinery fire that blazed for hours, spewing thick plumes of black smoke that could be seen for miles.

The four-alarm fire at Sunoco's Eagle Point Refinery along the Delaware River, directly across from South Philadelphia's Naval Business Center, broke out about 4:30 p.m., as heavy thunderstorms passed through the region. One of the thunderbolts struck a storage tank containing about 1.5 million gallons of xylene, a chemical used as an additive in gasoline, adhesives and paint.

A Sunoco spokesman today said refinery tanks are heavily grounded to guard against lightning. The fire investigation will include that lightning-supression system as part of the "root-cause analysis," said spokesman Gerald Davis.

Flames from the blazing chemical licked the sky near I-295 and Route 130 in Westville, Gloucester County, for more than 3 1/2 hours before the fire was extinguished about 8 p.m., after emergency crews had smothered it with firefighting foam.

At no point did the blaze appear to threaten other structures within the plant or the neighboring community, said John McCann, another Sunoco spokesman. No injuries were reported, and no evacuations were ordered.

McCann described the fire as an "extremely rare occurrence" for Sunoco. "I cannot tell you the last time we had a tank fire," he said.

The storage tank held more than 1 1/2 million gallons of xylene, a chemical found in crude oil and used as a gasoline supplement. The substance also is used to manufacture paints, adhesives and plastics.

McCann said he didn't know how much of the chemical had been consumed by the fire.

The burning chemical posed no threat to nearby residents, McCann said.

Some residents complained of soot and spots on their homes, cars and other belongings. Sunoco established a recorded telephone hotline for people who have complaints. The number is 800-786-0270.

"We regret that there was this incident, but were pleased there were no injuries," said Davis. "We do have a procedure in place for people who have claims of property damage and we will take those concerns very seriously. Each one will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."

The sooty plume of smoke, which rose in the flight path of aircraft approaching Philadelphia International Airport, did not affect any incoming flights, an airport spokeswoman said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said officials were headed to the scene to study the situation, according to spokeswoman Darlene Yuhas.

Exposure to xylene can cause headaches, lack of muscle coordination, dizziness and confusion. High doses can lead to unconsciousness and death, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The storms that produced the dangerous lightning strikes also drenched parts of the Philadelphia suburbs, causing some rush-hour flooding. In Radnor Township, more than 2.5 inches of rain fell in 90 minutes. Parts of South Jersey received heavy rain and hail, the National Weather Service reported.

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 856-779-3838 or

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