Fire at Sun Oil refinery contained; no injuries

CLAYMONT, Del. - May 18, 2009 A fireball from the blast at Sunoco Inc.'s Marcus Hook facility lit up the sky Sunday night. Fire trucks sprayed down flames shooting high into the air at the complex straddling the Delaware/Pennsylvania border.

The fire was under control at midday Monday, Sunoco Inc. spokesman Thomas Golembeski said.

"The fire is still burning, but it's getting smaller and weakening," he said.

The company won't be able to assess the extent of the damage until it is safe to go in to the area.

Authorities and company officials said no injuries were reported and no evacuations of surrounding neighborhoods were ordered.

The 781-acre complex ranks 39th by total production out of the nation's 150 operating refineries, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Golembeski said the blast hit an area that makes a chemical used in plastics and declined to say if any gasoline production was affected.

"There has been some production impact to other units in the refinery ... I can't quantify it at this point," he said.

Experts say there is plenty of gasoline supply nationwide because Americans are driving much less in the recession.

All workers at the plant have been accounted for, Golembeski said.

The refinery was still open Monday morning and some production employees were reporting to work.

Golembeski said the company was monitoring air quality every hour and the readings indicated that "the situation is safe."

New Castle County, Del., county councilman John Cartier said he felt the blast and could see the flames from his home at least three miles from the refinery.

"It was almost like seismic," he told The (Wilmington) News Journal. "My house was rocked. It was a big large boom."

At one point, up to 50 firefighters from Delaware and Pennsylvania were at the scene.

Sunoco investigators and the Delaware state fire marshal will determine what caused the explosion, which occurred at the refinery's ethylene complex. Ethylene is a feed stock used in the production of plastics.

Golembeski said the explosion and fire was contained to the ethylene unit and did not affect an adjacent chemical plant that makes polypropylene, a tough plastic used for food containers and molded auto parts, among many other items. The ethylene unit has been shut down.

But some refining production in other units was affected, and he said the company was working with two of its upriver refineries - at Philadelphia and Westville, N.J. - to "optimize production" and meet customer demands.

"We have excess capacity at the other refineries, so we can ramp up a little bit," Golembeski said.

He did not specify how much production was affected at facility that processes about 175,000 barrels of sweet crude oil per day into various petroleum products including gasoline, jet fuel and home heating oil. The Philadelphia refinery can process about 330,000 barrels per day, and the New Jersey refinery has a capacity of 150,000 barrels per day.

The refinery adjoins an international seaport and operates around the clock seven days a week with about 700 employees. It refines oil primarily from fields in the North Sea and West Africa.

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