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Refineries Forced to Burn Off Chemicals

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Times Staff Writers

Towering columns of black smoke and flames could be seen across much of southern Los Angeles County on Monday as at least four area oil refineries were forced to burn off petroleum products in the wake of a power failure that affected much of Los Angeles.

The controlled fires, or flares, were visible for miles and triggered air quality alerts in neighborhoods surrounding the refineries. They prompted a small number of emergency room visits from residents who complained of illnesses they said were caused by the fires. While commuters and residents of communities such as Wilmington are familiar with the spectacle, the burn-offs rarely occur in such numbers and at the same time.

“It looked like a village was burning -- lots of fires, lots of smoke,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Daren Palacios, who helped lead the department’s efforts in Wilmington, which included warning residents of potential health risks. Several employees at the Conoco-Phillips refinery in Wilmington suffered respiratory problems and two were taken to a local hospital and released.

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Gasoline is produced under great pressure and heat. When refineries lose power, that pressure needs to be released. The petroleum product is sent up tall stacks, where it is burned off by the stack-top flares, causing flames and heavy smoke. The burn-off is a safety mechanism that prevents chemicals from spreading through the refinery, officials said.

The Conoco-Phillips refinery has not experienced a power outage in several years, according to a spokesman. The firm issued an alert to neighbors at 3:45 p.m. when a substance called catalyst was released. Although the spokesman described the catalyst as inert nontoxic dust covered with oil, the refinery took the precaution of alerting the public.

Residents near the refinery were warned via phone calls to stay inside their homes.

“The emissions weren’t smelling the best and we would like to make sure our residents were adequately protected,” said Paul Langland, a spokesman at Conoco-Phillips.

An all-clear signal was sent an hour later.

Refinery and air quality officials said they were monitoring the flare emissions for much of the day Monday, and had yet to determine if they posed a significant health threat. Langland said turning a refinery back on takes considerably longer than turning it off, and the Conoco-Phillips facility may be running again within 12 hours.

Flames were still emerging from three stacks at the Valero refinery in Wilmington at 8 p.m. Monday. Also affected were the Equilon refinery and a refinery-related facility known as Air Products, both in Wilmington, said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Atwood said the burn-offs were unusual.

“It sounds like there’s been quite a bit of flaring going on out there in the same time period. That’s uncommon,” he said.

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“Dark smoke that is petrochemical in nature could be irritating or worse,” Atwood said.

Several people who live near the Conoco-Phillips refinery said they had not received the automated telephone warning.

Lucero Hernandez, 15, said her five young siblings had complained of health problems Monday afternoon. “The kids said it smelled bad and their heads started hurting,” she said. Her parents, she added, were afraid the refinery was going to explode.

Atwood said the air quality agency received more than 40 complaints of air quality problems and was informed of shutdowns at 12 facilities they monitor -- five oil refineries in the Wilmington area, three industrial plants, two landfills, a service station and the Burbank municipal utility.

Air regulators received a complaint from Wilmington Middle School at 4:30 p.m. of “smoke and odors and people experiencing watery eyes and tightness in their chests,” Atwood said. The district sent an inspector to investigate.

The air district began taking air samples downwind of some of the refineries in Wilmington and hopes to have results this morning.

Flaring at refineries can lead to the release of hydrocarbons that contribute to smog, as well as sulfur dioxide and particulate matter that can lodge in lungs and can trigger asthma and aggravate respiratory ailments.

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Most flaring does not occur during emergencies and could be subject to new limits currently under consideration by the air district. The district’s board is slated to vote on the new regulations, which have drawn criticism from both refineries and environmentalists, in early November.

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