Implosion startles Jersey residents

Posted: January 27, 2014

WEST DEPTFORD Demolition crews blew up a 65-year-old refinery building in West Deptford on Saturday, startling South Jersey residents who heard the explosions.

Some residents took their curiosity and alarm to social-media sites, seeking answers to "What was that?"

Heavy demolition began at 9 a.m., said Jeff Shields, a spokesman for Sunoco, which owns the "fractionator" building.

The structures were soon leveled, he said, and the work presented no danger to residents.

"You had some blasts that destabilized the structure, and then they collapsed on themselves," he said. "It was successful, it was controlled. . . . We were within range, and it didn't seem out of the ordinary for what we're doing."

A rusty-looking dome, the fractionator - a "cat cracker" in industry parlance - was used to refine crude oil into other fuels. It was built in 1949, according to Sunoco.

That was when Texaco began refinery operations at the 1,100-acre West Deptford site, which the company bought in 1948, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Coastal Oil bought the plant in 1985 and sold it to Sunoco in 2004.

The demolition was the latest move in an effort to decommission the site as a refinery. The plant, situated on the Delaware River, stopped production in December 2009 because of market conditions and a decrease in demand for oil.

Nearly 400 employees lost their jobs; only 50 employees now work there. The company continues to use the site to store and transfer petroleum.

"Everybody hoped [Sunoco] would open it back up," a former refinery maintenance worker said Friday. "That's not going to happen."

Assurances

The former employee, a Georgia Avenue resident whose backyard borders the site, was worried that the implosion could shake the ground, cracking walls or damaging the foundation. He asked to not be identified, citing a nondisclosure agreement he had signed with Sunoco.

Mayor Ray Chintall said: "According to the experts, the structure hitting ground should not cause shock waves so as to do any damage in nearby homes."

Shields said that any metals would be sold and the remaining debris recycled or taken to a landfill.

Township officials issued the necessary permits for the demolition.

Chintall said he had been assured that proper steps were taken to secure the site. Remediation was done to ensure no asbestos was released into the community, Sunoco said.

"All the asbestos is gone from that unit," Shields said. "We don't expect any health effects on the neighborhood."

Sunoco began dismantling the refinery in November 2011 and is expected to complete the process in April.

The plant's closure angered State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a West Deptford resident who represented workers at the refinery.

Filing suit

After Republicans were elected to the township committee in 2011 after years of Democratic control, officials agreed to settle a slew of property tax appeals by Sunoco.

Sweeney sponsored a bill, later signed by Gov. Christie, that would prevent Sunoco and other companies from getting tax refunds on closed facilities until the properties were clean of contamination.

When West Deptford officials proceeded with the tax settlement with Sunoco, Sweeney sued his hometown. That suit, settled last year, gives Sunoco its refund, but the company must post a bond to ensure cleanup.

The site, contaminated with metals related to the operations, is still undergoing remediation. Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said Friday that work was on track.


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917 @AJFichera

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.

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