Third Refinery Fire in 16 Months Investigated

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After two decades without a serious fire, three significant blazes at the Coop Refinery Complex in 16 months - the most recent one overnight Monday - is cause for concern, says a Federated Co-operatives Ltd. official.

"One fire is too many," Vic Huard, vice-president of corporate affairs, told a news conference Monday.

"Are we disappointed? Absolutely we're disappointed ... And are we working very hard to fix it? Yes."

Huard said fortunately no one was injured when the fire broke out at 12: 20 a.m. in a coker unit pump house, used in processing asphalt.

The blaze resulted in what appeared to be an explosion that sent flames at least 24 metres skyward, the height of some equipment that showed signs of scorching.

A small number of workers were sent to "standby points" - work trailers - but not evacuated off site.

Leslie Albert was driving down the Ring Road when she noticed the glow from the refinery was brighter than usual.

She quickly realized, "Oh my gawd, it's on fire."

"The flames were going straight up in the air," she said, adding that they were shooting up higher than the buildings. Pulling over to capture the scene in pictures, Albert - thinking back to a major blaze there in October 2011 - thought, "Another fire!"

Truck driver Gord Thomson also saw the sight from the Ring Road. "It was just a black cloud, and it just burst into a big ball of flame," he said, adding that there was a sound like the low rumble of a freight train.

"It was like a flare-up ... And then it finally caught a flame and turned into a fireball," he added. "It was pretty scary."

He noted that police had roads leading into the site shut down.

The refinery's team of firefighters extinguished the blaze within half an hour, and an "all clear" was given just after 2 a.m. Although Regina Fire and Protective Services was called and put on standby, its firefighters weren't sent in since the refinery's team had the fire under control.

The refinery is now cooperating with a fire investigation to try to pinpoint the cause of the blaze and extent of damage. It was too early Monday to attach a dollar figure to the damage.

Huard said there was never any risk to the public from any of the three fires. "This complex is built in such a way that the kind of catastrophic failures in the Hollywood scenario just can't happen," he said.

The October 2011 fire and another, also in a pump house unit, in May last year were eventually attributed to mechanical problems.

The unit affected Monday was upgraded in 1988. Huard said this fire was worse than the one in May, which caused $5 million in damage, but nowhere near the scope of the blaze in 2011. It resulted in injuries to 52 people, 13 of which required treatment in hospital, and $100-million property damage and production loss.

Until 16 months ago, there hadn't been a serious fire at the facility since 1988. "We had one of the best safety records, in regard to fires like this, in the industry," said Huard, adding that it's believed the recent incidents - all of which are unrelated - are "an anomaly."

"This is not the norm - for us or for anyone else," he added.

With each incident, procedures, maintenance schedules, and the complex's equipment integrity program are reviewed. "We'll continue to try to get better," said Huard.

Regina fire Chief Gerard Kay said the fact of three fires in a relatively short time is not a concern for his department.

"This is a highly-regulated industry, and they use a lot of the information that we provide them as far as previous investigations in order to better their product," he said.

Huard said the latest fire will have only a minimal, short-term impact on crude oil processing.

"This is one processing unit out of 33 in the complex," he explained. Instead of putting out 55,000 barrels of crude a day in the affected area, production is down by about 10,000 barrels. A secondary production area was put on standby Monday while the investigation is underway.

"We're not anticipating any impact on supply," said Huard, adding that inventories of diesel and gasoline are high.

A fire investigation report released in August last year blamed the October 2011 fire, which occurred in a diesel processing area, on a corroded pipe that ruptured and triggered a series of four explosions. They spawned a massive fireball and plumes of thick black smoke.

The area where that fire occurred was rebuilt, but hasn't yet come on line. Implementation of the 19 recommendations from that investigation is ongoing, Huard said Monday.

The fire in May last year occurred when an oil pump overheated and ignited crude oil.

Huard said the location of that fire is quite a distance from the area involved in Monday's blaze. An investigation attributed that fire to a mechanical failure in a crude pump due to a bearing.

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