Alf Larsen promised Mary just one more trip at sea before he could take on the cushy job of night watchman at Cramp’s Shipyard. Often the Norwegian paramour of Christopher Morley’s poem “Penn Treaty Park” would idle around the park with his love, Mary “of Wildey St.” planning for an amorous future. On his long absences, she would console herself by visiting their pecking bench, believing the inscription below the Founder, “Unbroken Faith” to be a testament to their bond. Just one more trip, and all their plans would be set in motion.
It was not to be. Wrote Morley in 1920 of the scene at the Atlantic Refining Company’s wharfs:
The Roald Amundsen was Larsen’s ship.
She lay at the refinery, Point Breeze,
Taking on oil for Liverpool. The day
She was to sail, somehow she caught on fire.
A petaled rose of hell, she roared in flame—
The burning liquid overflowed her decks,
The dock and oil-scummed river blazing, too.
Her men had little chance. They leaped for life
Into the river, but the paraffin
Blazing along the surface, hemmed them in.
They either burned or drowned, and Alf was one.
By cruel irony, the city hauled the burned out hulk of the Amundsun to its wharf at Penn Treaty, seemingly to haunt young Mary who could no longer “bear to see / The sunset sheet the river oe’r with flame.”
While the pitiful Alf and Mary were poetic contrivances, the fate of the Roald Amundsun was not; she and two other craft burned at the Passyunk Avenue docks in winter 1919 where according to the Nautical Gazette the river “is always coated with oil.” While some escaped the immolation by jumping into the frigid January waters, others like Nelson Anderson succumbed to his burns. The ship’s captain Omdell went missing and was presumed dead. Nine others were seriously injured. The Roald Amundsun was eventually restored and served until 1936, the city’s fire tugs saving the craft from total destruction.
Yet for Atlantic and its numerous successor companies and fellow petrochemical giants, fire in the lower Schuylkill and Delaware refinery districts is a continuous cost of doing business. The threat remains, as Will Bunch reported today in the Daily News, and the transport of crude oil by rail to refineries on the Lower Schuylkill is increasing rapidly. A deadly accident earlier this year in Quebec confirmed the enduring danger.
Early technologies of oil extraction, processing, and storage utilizing wood, flammable materials, and containing an iron-on-iron ignition source possessed the three legs of the “fire triangle.” Yet throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, opposition to the explosive refinery was muted; it was largely considered a necessary nuisance, a kind of quiet menace that defied public understanding or scrutiny. Like the Sphinx of antiquity, this odd-looking industry dared the public to pass through its domain.
Officials offered little promise of public safety and those who chose to enter the odd rainbow-colored waters were sometimes subjected to the works’ malevolent wrath. So ubiquitous were the known water hazards in and around oil works that in 1892 the New York Times criticized three Philadelphia boaters who set off a fire when one’s “thoughtless act” of tossing his match into Schuylkill ignited the “thin scum of oil from the adjacent oil works.” Unfortunately for the casualties William Miller, Albert Krumbach, and Warren Hilt, their terror was compounded by the recent “oil fire there on Sunday…” which left “more than the usual quantity floating on the surface.”
The visual paradox of refineries is that their sprawling complexity is hidden in plain sight. We only tend to see them when they fail spectacularly. As Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said at the official launch of the Sunoco-successor Philadelphia Energy Solutions in October, “You see it all the time from the highway, having no real idea of what takes place here.” While post-9/11 security regulations and private security have further shrouded refineries from photographers and videographers, even the Federal agency charged with investigating refinery mishaps, the Chemical Safety Board, has difficulty showing video of catastrophic failures. At one time this location of Philadelphia’s oil works was peripheral to the urban center. When fires did occur they were often sensationally reported in the press, yet refineries’ relative isolation limited human casualty and insulated Philadelphia’s refiners from public opprobrium.
But as the city swelled, neighborhoods pressed up against the giant refineries.
And the people who lived in them wanted oil to power their cars. More Americans grew accustomed to driving after World War I and again after World War II. Embracing the automotive freedom oil companies seemed to offer, Americans accepted the occasional calamity. In the Philadelphia region, where nearly ten percent of the nation’s total petroleum employment worked in the 1950s, refineries still buttress entire communities along the Delaware River.
Oil and water: the geography of refining in Philadelphia
Fundamentally, the mixing of oil and water was, and continues to be, the whole point. Philadelphia’s location on the tidewater primed it as the chief entrepot of refined crude during Pennsylvania’s first energy boom of the 1850s-60s. While Pittsburgh had 58 refineries by 1867 and traded oil globally, it also had no capacity for international export. Thus on November 19, 1861, only two years after oil was discovered in Titusville, Pa., the 229-ton Camden, NJ brig Elizabeth Watts sailed for England with barrels of “rock oil” in her hold. She left from a dock on the Schuylkill River owned jointly by Pittsburghers Charles Lockhart and William Frew and Philadelphian William G. Warden, whose company would later formalize their holdings at Point Breeze as the Atlantic Petroleum Storage Company, later the Atlantic Refining Company.
The oil network that materialized in Pennsylvania in the 1860s-70s was perhaps something akin to contemporary Saudi Arabia: at one end of the state Warden, Frew & Co. sat squarely on a reliable source of oil while at the other were refining, storage and tidewater shipping opportunities to a growing export market. Easily linking the two sides of the state was the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), the moving pipeline. For Charles Lockhart, securing preferential shipping rates through the PRR was as easy as chatting with his East End Pittsburgh neighbor, Thomas Scott, then president of the railroad. Soon, all of this Keystone-state collusion forced the arch-monopolist John D. Rockefeller to strongarm most of the Pennsylvanians under the Standard Oil big tent, an arrangement that lasted until 1911 when the Justice Department forced its dismemberment.
Beginning in 1866, Atlantic began purchasing vast tracts of former farmland just below Passyunk Avenue on the river. According to an 1872 Hexamer survey, the works occupied about 25 acres of river frontage and included refining stills, barrell-making shops, warehouses, docks and a novel urban form: tanks in a row. It was a form which would dominate the lower Schuylkill landscape for nearly 150 years.
An 1866 advertising lithograph situates the works against a verdant river’s edge, schooners await their export casks in staggeringly blue water while boaters and horse drivers wend their way through the transitioning landscape. It shows a place of quiet coexistence: a tidy prosperous machine in the garden.
Quickly, the city residents sensed the refinery’s impact on the city’s air and water. An 1880 cartoon criticizing the reek of the Standard Oil Company’s Hunters Point works shows a oft-favored octopus spreading “poverty, disease, and death.” Panels show demure Victorian women holding their noses, children weeping into their mothers dresses, beautiful villas sitting idle all while the stills belch forth black smoke. And despite the company’s desire to capture even the “odor of petroleum” for sale, oil did escape from the company’s tanks, ships and pipes.
During an 1896 negligence suit brought against Atlantic by an exporter whose ship caught fire at Point Breeze, a gas works engineer testified that that floating oil “would be all over the river, and sometimes it would be close in along the wharf, according to which way the wind was blowing.” The ground, another gas works employee testified, was mainly “clinker and debris, and oil will come through it just like a sponge.” At issue was whether the oil on the banks of the river that had allowed the fire to consume the bark was caused by a faulty pipe. In a curious defense of Atlantic’s right of usufruct, the court ruled that despite the presence of oil in the river which caught fire, it had not come from a defective pipe but was “naturally” deposited by the wind and tides. Thus, suit dismissed; the classic legal outcome in the private city.
Noxious and annoying as these odors and property losses were, it was the refinery’s consistent habit of exploding into a cataclysmic hellscape that signaled the dangers of the rapidly expanding Schuylkill energy district. The first reported plantwide fire occurred on June 11, 1879 when lightning (a recurring trigger) struck the pumphouse and ignited buildings, tanks, 10,000 barrels of oil, five ships, the cooper’s shop and the superintendent’s house and offices. “The burning oil,” the New York Times reported, “was running in all directions, and the long line of wharf property was soon one continuous sheet of flame.”
The barely-rebuilt complex was soon rocked again in 1881 when a tank filled with 6,000 barrels of oil exploded with a report that could be heard in Chester. In 1884 another lightning strike blew up a crude oil tank and in May of that year a tremendous fire again put the entire works in jeopardy. William Elkins, owner of the nearby Belmont Oil Works, made a request to the state militia to fire artillery rounds at his tanks to draw down their contents and prevent the fire’s migration to the Gas Works.
Just as routinely as lightning struck the plant, the main stills often exploded, usually casting up huge eruptions of flaming oil. Two stills exploded in succession in 1887, severely burning five men. In 1901, a burning tank collapsed, sending great quantities of burning oil and “fiery spray” onto the 100 spectators gathered on Passyunk Avenue. Eleven years later, Philadelphia firefighters battled another still explosion and fire for 14 hours.
In 1921, Atlantic’s deadliest fire resulted when a high pressure naptha still exploded, emitting a torrent of blazing naptha 200 feet in the air. “The descending oil fell upon and ignited the clothing of various workmen…. They ran screaming through the plant until they were thrown down and the blazing clothing extinguished.” Ten men caught in a small passageway below the still were burned to death by the exploding hydrocarbon vapor. So frequent were fires that Atlantic employees learned to read the long and short whistle codes to determine the location and severity of these conflagrations.
The revolving door: global oil and the uncertain fate of northeast tidewater refineries
Behind the image of almost ceaseless petroleum production in the lower Schuylkill is the far more volatile global macroeconomy of oil, a reality which is constantly shifting the utility and marketability of fixed assets like refinery infrastructure. Since the arrival of oil refining on the Schuylkill, these massive conglomerations of capital have been sliced, diced, and reformed as their owners have struggled with slackening domestic demand, rising costs of crude imports, plant inefficiencies, and aggressive consolidation among oil producers.
For a time in the 1980s, it seemed like the fate of the Philadelphia tidewater refinery was sealed. In the face of a worldwide glut of refined products and weakening demand, Philadelphia’s refineries became revolving doors. A rebranded Atlantic spun off from the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) in 1985, operating the old Point Breeze facility until Sunoco snapped up both this and Gulf’s former Girard Point (then Chevron-owned) plant in 1988. Across the river Texaco’s Eagle Point refinery was sold at a bargain basement price to Coastal who promptly fired all 485 union employees. By the mid-1980s, the region’s share of employment in the refining sector leveled out at 6.4 percent down from a robust 9 percent in the 1950s. It appeared more of the same when news of Sunoco’s departure from the refining industry altogether reverberated through the region in 2011. Coupled with the loss of ConocoPhillips’ Trainer facility, a grim pall descended over business and labor communities. As the region seemed poised on the precipice to enter a post-petroleum era, questions of cleanup costs, possible new land uses, options for displaced employees fed smoldering anxieties.
Then came Bakken: inexpensive “sweet” (having less that 42 percent sulfur) crude fracked from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan that could, on paper, be shipped to the east cheaply via rail since costly pipeline infrastructure was years out. Industry experts believed Bakken via rail could undersell the price of Brent crude, the industry standard coming out of the North Sea.
Suddenly, the region’s underused refining capacity created a buyers market with a dizzying rate of transactions. Delta Airlines bought the Trainer refinery (with $30 million in state subsidies) for the cost of a new Boeing 777. PBF Energy Inc., cobbled together a small refining empire by purchasing the Delaware City refinery from Petroplus, as well as a Toledo, Ohio refinery from Sunoco, and the Paulsboro, NJ refinery from Valero in 2010. Yet it’s been the aggressive reorganization of the Commonwealth’s third-largest corporation, Sunoco, which may assure the permanence of hydrocarbon refining along the Schuylkill’s banks for another century.
As soon as she entered office in 2008, Sunoco CEO Lynn Elsenhans understood that the least profitable aspect of selling refined products was actually refining products; soon Sunoco became less a refiner and more a retail, storage and energy logistics company. The brutal campaign shuttered refineries in Philadelphia, Marcus Hook, and Toledo and engendered enmity from Rep. Bob Brady (D-Philadelphia) who found Elsenhans an aloof “wicked witch” detached from the process of finding a new operator for the state’s refineries. Yet, Elsenhans gussied up Sunoco sufficiently for it to merit a sale to the amorphous Energy Trading Partners, L.P. (ETP), a Houston-based pipeline and logistics company that moves vast quantities of oil and gas around the country via a stealthy latticework of pipes. Crucial to the attractiveness of the sale was Sunoco Logistics Partners, LP once the infrastructural veins of Sunoco, now part of the massive system that funnels oil and gas from production fields to Gulf and East Coast refiners. In a clear statement of Energy Trading Partners’ new priorities, in May of this year Sunoco Logistics purchased the shuttered Marcus Hook plant to process and export natural gas liquids from the Marcellus and Utica Shale formations.
Arguably the most significant prize in Sunoco’s tactical divestment has been the South Philadelphia refinery: a 330,000 barrels-per-day producing juggernaut, oldest and largest on the East Coast with excellent rail and tidewater connections via the Schuylkill River and Hog Island terminals. With cheap Bakken (in early October you could ship the crude to Delaware City for $12.00 a barrel), the South Philly refinery was no longer boxed in by high-priced West African crude sources. On paper it looked good: a standalone refinery lacking corporate overhead with diverse sources of feedstock. Thus to the relief of Philadelphia’s business and labor communities, Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) was born in July 2012 a joint project of the massive “alternative” asset and venture capital manager The Carlyle Group and Sunoco (ETP).
Aerial photos of the Atlantic Refining Company by Aero Service Corporation, circa 1926, used with permission of The Library Company of Philadelphia
“Human torches”: increased output, heightened risk
Just a year before Atlantic’s 1921 fire, Gulf Refining Company constructed a relatively modest 31,000 barrels-per-day refinery at Girard Point, just above Penrose Ferry Avenue. Gulf built additional storage and terminal facilities at Gibson’s Point on the west bank of the Schuylkill, roughly across from Atlantic’s refinery. Buoyed by Americans’ postwar automobile wanderlust, Gulf began pouring nearly $50 million into modernizing the facility in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The centerpiece of the overhaul was the then-world’s largest catalytic cracker which boosted the plant to an 125,000 barrels-per-day output.
With this increase in cracking and storage capacity, however, came greater risk. Sixteen storage tanks exploded in 1960 at a cost of $1 million and huge blazes erupted in 1967 and 1969. In August 1975, Gulf Oil Corporation’s Girard Point refinery was host to arguably the city’s most vicious urban inferno, one which took the lives of eight firefighters. During this catastrophe, firefighters successfully suppressed flames emanating from tank 231, roughly where the current stack is now visible north of the Platt Bridge. During the course of their operations, a massive quantity of oily foam began to overwhelm the refinery’s sewage system and accumulate in tank dikes and along the major thoroughfares where most of the fire apparatuses were assembled. Just before 5PM, this material flashed, capturing men and machines amid white hot sheets of flame. Four entire firetrucks and their crews melted before the department’s officers.
Left three photos: Philadelphia Evening Bulletin photos of the August 1975 fire at the Gulf refinery which claimed the lives of eight firefighters; at right, an aerial photo of another blaze in 1977 in which a barge sunk, releasing oil which caught fire in the river | Images used with permission of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA. See also: This map by Christopher R. Dougherty of the inferno.
“The flames just engulfed them,” said Fire Commissioner Joseph Rizzo, with characteristic bluntness. “They were trying to get under the foam, but to no avail. They were human torches.” Rizzo’s forces retreated and regrouped, while allowing the fire in tank 231 to weaken before counterattacking. Six men were killed outright; two later died of their burns. Gulf, posting $4.17 billion in revenue in the last quarter of 1975, quietly donated $25,000 to two regional burn centers in honor of the firefighters.
Soon, Gulf itself would be consumed. The Philadelphia fire was but one of the spectacular infrastructural failures which rocked the overbuilt corporation in the 1970s. In less than a decade after the Philadelphia immolation, its stock price was nosing below the value of a fire sale of its assets, and corporate raiders began circling the ailing behemoth.
Philadelphia: the “Cushing” of the East?
The abundance of cheap Bakken crude has compelled massive investments in rail, offloading and storage infrastructure as Philadelphia seeks to link itself to the large network of oil production fields and storage depots throughout the country. Yet as extensive as these capital outlays appear, construction of rail terminals in the Bakken and at refining points are but a fraction of what it would take to enhance pipeline infrastructure to move the massive quantities of oil and gas coming out of North Dakota. Energy analysts suggest this underdevelopment of pipelines has led to a “pig in the python” bottleneck. Lack of pipelines and a glutted natural gas market mean oil producers burn off, or “flare” enough natural gas in the Bakken to be seen from space. Moreover, pipelines are usually built and operated by a consortium of interested parties who expect to make back their vast capital investments by keeping the pipeline at maximum flow. Often end users are bound by extensive tariffs, linefill requirements and take-or-pay contract provisions requiring end users to pay for a prescribed amount of crude, regardless of whether these deliveries are taken.
In the case of PES’s South Philadelphia operation, where crude can hail from a variety of domestic and foreign “basins,” handcuffing the plant to fixed pipeline quantities and prices was seen as risky inflexibility. Thus in early October of this year, PES announced an expansion of its North Yard near 35th and Moore Streets, adding another track to accommodate a third 120-car crude train a day. When hydraulic pump gear is installed in the yard, it will boost the already massive 160,000 barrels per day capacity.
This means two unit trains of 120 tank cars will pass through the city each day, seven days a week. In the Philadelphia region, these trains are often led by Burlington Northern Santa Fe engines running the Bakken Express service.
On the site of the former PECO station in Eddystone, Pa. the Canadian-based energy logistics company Enbridge Inc. plans to construct a new rail receiving facility with a capacity of 80,000 barrels per day by early 2014. With nearly 700,000 barrels per day refining capacity within six miles of Eddystone, promoters of the project and industry observers are beginning to envision the region as a Cushing, Oklahoma of the East: a major oil and gas entrepot feeding refineries up and down the Delaware River.
Bakken oil trains in Center City and Fairmount Park, photos by Bradley Maule
In spite of all the advances, the core technology of this new landscape of oil transportation is nothing new: the lowly tank car, often known as the DOT-111A type car. It is an effective workhorse comprising roughly 70 percent of tank rolling stock in the United States. Yet despite their ubiquity on our rails, a mounting body of data suggests that moving flammable materials in DOT-111A cars is exceedingly risky. As early as 1991, the National Transportation Safety Board study found that “DOT-111A tank cars often have been unable to withstand the forces of an accident, even when the train was traveling at slow speeds.”
Researchers have found that in collisions, the highly rigid thin skins of the tank rupture easily. It was 74 DOT-111 cars laden with Bakken crude which rocketed into the sleepy Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic in the early morning of June 6, 2013. The ensuing fireball consumed nearly 15 acres of the downtown, vaporizing 42 people. Five additional missing are presumed dead.
Locally, it was the same type of cars which derailed in East Park near Fountain Green Drive in January 2011, in Paulsboro in November 2012 and again in September of this year near PBF’s Paulsboro refinery. Compounding the dangers is the recent discovery that Bakken crude can contain other volatile or corrosive chemicals left over from the hydraulic fracturing processes. Researchers have noted the increasing presence of the highly toxic and flammable hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas in Bakken crude warning that less desirable “sour” crude prematurely wears out pipeline and well infrastructure.
Early this spring, Enbridge threatened to shut down its crude loading railyard in North Dakota if suppliers could not reduce the amount of H2S gas in its crude. At 200 parts per million (ppm) exposure to H2S gas can cause respiratory failure in just a few inhalations. Enbridge found 1,200 ppm in one of its storage tanks. Experts wonder whether Bakken crude, once thought to be a relatively safe, Class 3 hazardous material, should be categorized as a Class 1 explosive material. In response to these concerns, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) inaugurated a “Bakken Blitz” round of tank car inspections this fall.
Regulators have been “laser focused on the energy boom epicenter” at rail and terminal facilities in the Bakken, ensuring that crude products containing hazardous additives be labeled as explosives. Additionally, the FRA has tasked its special Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) to evaluate a host of policies and regulations governing the movement of hazardous material by rail. In advance of RSAC’s April 2014 findings, it appears that the FRA places faith in multiple person crews as the first line of defense against mishaps.
Still, in the last ten years, train accidents are down 43 percent with more and more railways opting for “engineer-only” operations: seemingly a testament to labor-saving computerized train control. However, in our region, tiny train gaffes seem to be mounting. A New York-bound Amtrak train traveling the busiest passenger rail line in the country recently ended up in Bala Cynwyd. A freight train keeled over on a curve in Nicetown. Should we take comfort in the reality that 99.99 percent of freight shipments occur without incident or be concerned about the higher stakes for freight safety in our dense urban core or in our train-choked rail corridors? As we build more crude on-and-offloading facilities, the question arises whether we’ve spent concomitantly on the infrastructure and technologies that assure safe passage of dangerous cargo through a dense network of passenger and freight roads.
In the region, oil shippers, first responders, and refiners are unfazed by the volume of product already moving through our communities. When asked about responses to hazards, coolness prevails. CSX never comments on specific shipments, end users have committed to reevaluating their safe offloading practices, emergency managers and fire departments have scenarios in place. This air of confident reassurance pervading the attitudes of Bakken users reflects a continuous almost begrudging tolerance for risk in the refining districts of this city and region. But Bakken is different: it’s everywhere. It’s in the leafy defiles of East Park, it snuggles up to the Art Museum and Center City along Schuylkill Banks, it’s sitting 1,700 feet from the brand new Universal Audenreid Charter High.
It’s a curious irony: freeing ourselves from foreign oil, cozying up to it in our own city.
* * *
Petroleum Refining Complexes of the Delaware & Schuylkill Rivers; map by Christopher R. Dougherty.
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About the author
Christopher R. Dougherty is the longtime proprietor of NFR--"The Necessity for Ruins"--an online investigation of the region's built environments and cultural geography. He has an MA in American History from the University of Scranton and an MS is Community and Regional Planning from Temple University's School of Environmental Design.
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