PES Refinery: A Wake-Up Call

A Chemical Safety Board video about the June 2019 explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery highlights the role played by science and engineering in the standards that guide the regulation of complex processes.

On June 21, 2019, the largest and oldest oil refinery on the U.S. east coast erupted in a series of explosions caused by a ruptured pipe elbow that combusted over 600,000 lbs of propane, which in turn vaporized over 3000 lbs of HF above the refinery. HF can be fatal upon both skin contact and inhalation.

One month after the explosions, the owners of the refinery declared bankruptcy. Ten days later, Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney named a 24-member advisory board to advise on the future of the refinery. Mark Alan Hughes was named the chair of the environmental and scientific committee, one of four committees of the board charged with organizing public input and discussion. A large number of Penn faculty presented in open meetings before the board, including Cary Coglianese, Nadine Gruhn and Karen Goldberg, Marilyn Howarth,  Fritz Steiner, and Bethany Wiggin. A final report was released by the City on November 26, 2019, five months after the explosions and two months after the hazardous incident was finally declared under control. On February 13, 2020, a bid by Hilco Redevelopment Partners was approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court based on a proposal consistent with the recommendations of the City’s report that the refinery not be re-started and an alternative use be developed. 

While the 2019 Philadelphia process was oriented to the future of the 1300-acre refinery site, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has just released a final report on the underlying causes of the PES incident and a set of recommendations to reduce the chances and consequences of similar incidents in the future. The video below presents these findings for the wider public.  The video is remarkable both for its findings and for the clarity of its explanation. An important lesson on display is the role played by science and engineering in the standards that guide the regulation of complex processes. For example, the CSB recommends the application of an “inherently safer design” standard for HF Alkylation in U.S. refineries. As described in the video, this standard derives from chemistry and chemical engineering. 

The role of industry standards is a particular interest of our colleagues at the Penn Program on Regulation.  The CSB review of the PES Refinery incident identifies a number of ways that industry standards could be improved to increase the safety of gasoline refining in the 50 or so US refineries that use hydrofluoric acid as a catalyst in the alkylation process. 

Mark Alan Hughes

Director Emeritus
Mark Alan Hughes is director emeritus of the Kleinman Center. During his time as faculty director, he led the Center and wrote on topics ranging from deep decarbonization to the future of Philadelphia’s energy landscape.