Caught in Orion’s belt

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 4, 2003


NORCO – Smaller fires continued to burn themselves out Thursday at Orion Refining Company’s Good Hope facility in the aftermath of the large coker unit fire which erupted Wednesday morning.

The exact cause of the fire will not be known until a damage assessment team performs its task, once the remaining small fires are extinguished, according to Orion president Clark Johnson.

No sirens were sounded, and no evacuations ordered, either by the plant, the parish or the school system and that fact angered many residents in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Only two minor injuries were reported in the incident, neither directly caused by the fire, Johnson said. This was despite the fact 80 Orion employees and 10 contractor employees were in the vicinity when the blaze burst forth at 10:40 a.m.

Johnson said everything was operating normally that morning when the fire began. All employees were quickly accounted for, and contract employees were alerted as well.

The feed lines to the 400-foot-tall coker unit’s fractionator were shut down and the largest part of the fire was brought under control in less than two hours. “It’s in a controlled burn,” Johnson said, and added 10,000 gallons of water per minute were being poured onto to bring down the temperatures. Six fire trucks and 25 firefighters were hurled at the emergency, and environmental employees soon ringed the perimeter of the plant to test for any possible harmful discharge.

“We don’t know the damage yet, but we’ll probably be down for a couple of weeks,” Johnson said.

The story was different on St. Charles Street in New Sarpy, where residents face the Orion tank farm. Dorothy Jenkins of Concerned Citizens of New Sarpy can open the front door of her mobile home residence and see an unobscured view of the fire. However, she was inside working on a gumbo and did not see it erupt.

Her son, Major Mackie, was in her front yard, hard at work on a truck engine.

“The first thing, I heard the horns and saw guys running,” Mackie said. “I looked up and saw the fire.”

He commented, “You could tell it was toxic because of the color of the smoke.”

Mackie expressed his own dismay that no one from Orion informed the community as to what was going on. He ran inside and told his mother, who called the St. Charles Parish emergency operations center. The EOC at that time, was still gathering data themselves and could offer no hard knowledge as to what was going on.

“It’s a good thing it wasn’t the catalytic cracker or this town would’ve been gone,” Mackie said.

River Road in front of Orion was quickly closed to all but emergency vehicles and to keep gawkers away from the scene. However, smoke from the fire was being blown by a stiff north breeze, away from New Sarpy, Norco and the West Bank.

Discussions were carried out to determine whether to close Airline Drive as well, but Airline was not closed because the smoke was high and already dispersed by the time it reached the highway. TV news crews quickly set up for satellite transmission coverage of the fire, and were swiftly joined at the scene by Anne Rolfes, environmental activist with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. She eagerly posed for the cameras while taking air samples. Nearby, La. Department of Environmental Quality environmental scientist Forrest Davis went virtually unnoticed as he took his own air samples.

Back on St. Charles Street, Junius Williams, 77, was in the street, watching the fire, while braced with a walker.

“I’ve been here since 1948. I used to work at the Pan American Refinery (in Destrehan) and we never had these smells and stuff,” Williams said.

He was still out when Johnson came up the street, and Williams met with him. The pair smiled and shook hands while Johnson pledged to open lines of communication with the residents.

“They’ll run right out with a big smile on their faces, but it’s not a smiling matter,” Mackie commented.

Environmental activist and St. Charles Street resident Don Winston commented of Orion, “They’re not bad people. They just have a second-hand plant.”

Petrochemical operations date back nearly a century in the area. Island Refinery located in the area in the 1910s, bringing with them homesites for its workers. General American Tank Terminals came in June 1925 and the town of Good Hope prospered through the 1930s into the 1960s. However, the Good Hope Refinery soon bought out most of the old homesites, demolished them and built his plant in the early 1970s, lasting until 1983 when finances collapsed in a cloud of toxic releases and citations by the DEQ and EPA.

TransAmerican Refining attempted to reconstruct the crumbling plant in 1987, rebuilding and renovating, though still plagued with operating concerns.

The coker unit which burst into flame Wednesday was added to the plant in 1998. Finally, the company went bankrupt and its assets acquired by Orion in 1999. Orion spent billions of dollars in new construction, and by mid-2000, process units were up and operating. Occasional flares and events such as the June 7, 2001, tank fire (the largest such fire in industry history) continue to alarm area residents.

In that tank fire, lightning struck a 6-inch-deep sheet of gasoline, which had moved atop the floating roof of a storage tank. At the time, the tank was filled to its 10-million-gallon capacity. With all the heavy rain associated with Tropical Storm Allison, water had built up atop the floating tank, causing it to buckle slightly with the weight. When the roof buckled, gasoline inside the tank was able to slip on top. Orion noticed the problem that morning, prompting them to begin pumping gasoline out of the tank to stabilize its contents. Orion fire-fighting personnel and equipment were placed on site as a precautionary action, though they hoped to pump the gasoline from the tank before more storming occurred. They were able to pump out 20 barrels an hour, until a new line of thunderstorms swept across Norco, a lightning bolt struck the gasoline, and set off the fire.

Problems continued to plague the facility, such as in September 2002, when Orion was forced to pay $1 million in fines to the state Department of Environmental Quality, as well as install and use $15 million of new emission-control equipment at its site.

On July 23, 2002, Orion was served with a Notice of Violation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for such violations as excessive flaring. Neighboring New Sarpy citizens, though, only learned of the citing Aug. 12. The refinery also agreed to perform two Beneficial Environmental Projects, valued at $1 million each. The first involves a series of community-wide projects to include air monitoring, an early-alert system to warn the community of any reportable releases, an enlargement and beautification of the buffer zone between the refinery and the east fence line nearest New Sarpy and a cooperative agreement with the parish for quality-of-life projects.

The second BEP requires Orion to improve its oil-water separators to reduce oil concentrations at the waste water treatment unit.

The settlement is to keep from going to court on a lawsuit filed by residents and environmentalist supporters.

The suit was filed Dec. 11, 2001, by a coalition of New Sarpy residents, the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

Orion operates a facility designed to process 155,000 barrels of heavy-crude oil per day. The refinery started up in mid-2000 as the first U.S petroleum refinery start-up in more than 25 years, and employs 615 people.