Situation stabilized at Saint John oil refinery following explosion, fire

08 Oct 2018 | Canada
Situation stabilized at Saint John oil refinery following explosion, fire

Eight hours after an explosion and fire at the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John shook the city and sent several contractors to hospital with non-life threatening injuries, the situation has been stabilized, Emergency Measures Organization officials say.

"EMO is no longer recommending that area residents shelter in place," the organization posted on Twitter shortly after 6 p.m. AT.

The New Brunswick Department of Environment and Department of Health are monitoring air quality around the east-side refinery and "have not identified any concerns to public health," it said.

The Saint John Fire Department has begun releasing some of its crews and equipment from the site and all streets have reopened to traffic.

A  malfunction in a diesel-treating unit is believed to be the source of the "bed-shaking" blast that sent flames shooting an estimated 30 metres high and saw a plume of black smoke cover most of the city's east side shortly after 10 a.m.

The unit, which removes sulphur from diesel, has been isolated and the rest of the refinery has been shut down "out of an abundance of caution," said Irving Oil's chief refining and supply officer Kevin Scott.

The Irving Oil facility is the largest refinery in Canada. It employs about 1,400 people and is capable of producing more than 320,000 barrels per day.

Although it's Thanksgiving Monday, close to 3,000 people were working onsite due to a regularly scheduled maintenance project. About 100 were the normal operations crew, while the rest were tradespeople working on the turnaround project, officials said.

"The fact no one was hurt seriously or killed during this incident is something to be very thankful for," said Saint John Mayor Don Darling.

Irving Oil is working with WorkSafeNB, the Department of Environment and EMO officials to "understand what happened" and determine next steps, said Scott.

The company hopes to avoid any interruptions to service, he added.

"We're working through all of our contingency plans in terms of supply. Of course we have finished product in tankage at the refinery and then further out in the system in marine terminals and you know relationships with other suppliers as well that we will draw on to minimize the impact on any of our customers — in Canada or the U.S."

Saint John police responded to the refinery at 10:16 a.m., and were asking people to avoid the area as curious onlookers lined the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was going on.

Several streets were closed but no evacuations were ordered.

After the explosion was reported, the Saint John Regional Hospital went into "code orange," meaning it was prepared for a possible influx of patients. 

"We can confirm we have now treated five people with injuries from the refinery explosion at Horizon's Saint John Regional Hospital and all five have been discharged.," New Brunswick's Horizon Health Network said on Twitter shortly after 3 p.m.

EMO was reporting four people were treated in hospital for "minor injuries."

Irving Oil posted on Twitter around 2 p.m. that several contractors were being treated for non-life threatening injuries.

"We now understand that all employees and contractors working on site have been safely accounted for," the tweet said.

"As this is an active situation, we will be sharing more information as it becomes available."

No other updates have been posted.

Darling said on Twitter early after reports of the explosion emerged: "This is obviously a live event ... when we know more, you'll know more. Praying for the safety of all involved."

Premier Brian Gallant tweeted he has reached out to the mayor.

Gallant said the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization was engaging with the city and Irving Oil officials to assess the situation.

There was another explosion at the oil refinery in 1998, when flames and a huge cloud of black smoke hung over the facility.

Rob Beebe felt Monday's explosion from his apartment on Martha Avenue, a few streets over from the refinery.

"We felt the entire building move as if it wobbled."

When he walked outside, he noticed black smoke coming from the refinery, so he hopped into the car, drove down the corner and saw fire about 30 metres high. cbc