CONVENT – A massive blaze tore through Shell's Motiva refinery early Thursday, sending flames soaring skyward and billowing clouds of black smoke into a gray, overcast sky, forcing workers to flee the giant complex along the Mississippi River.
Industrial firefighters battled the raging blaze for more than four hours before parish officials declared the blaze — which was contained in about an hour — extinguished about 3:30 p.m.
The large fire that started at about 10:50 a.m. sent emergency responders scrambling as flames, at one point, reached dozens of feet high and nearly engulfed Motiva’s H-Oil, or heavy oils, unit under intermittent rain.
“I’m on scene. I’m looking at a unit with fire coming out of it," St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin said late Thursday morning.
But by early Thursday afternoon, with the fire contained, company and parish officials reported no injuries at the facility of 1,400 workers and contractors.
Fleeing workers, some of whom gathered at a Shell gas station near Motiva on La. 70 before noon, described a concussion or high-pressure noise before the fire started and then began seeing “smoke billow out, like a volcano about to erupt.”
These workers, who all declined to give their names in fear of job repercussions, described hundreds of fleeing workers trying to get out of the plant and skipping typical check-out procedures. But these workers also suggested Motiva’s safety procedures for heavy rain and lightning, which had earlier Thursday sent many out of the plant into tents and other holding areas until the lightning and rain ended, inadvertently prevented injuries from the fire.
“Thank God for the weather, see, because the weather saved a lot of people,” said one worker who would not give his name. “If it was a sunny day, people would have been in there working, but by Motiva being such a safe plant, when it’s raining hard and thundering and lightning, they move people out the area.”
Hugues Bourgogne, general manager of the plant, said in a news conference Thursday that the cause of the fire was unknown and under investigation. He suggested it was unlikely lightning was the spark.
As the fire burned, a definite odor of petroleum permeated through the air near the plant, but an array of state and local officials said air monitoring by Motiva and later by the state Department of Environmental Quality showed pollution levels never reached a point that would require notifications and evacuations by surrounding businesses and residents.
Volatile organic compounds and hydrogen sulfide would be some of the major chemicals of concern for a petroleum-related fire, parish officials said.
Motiva’s 4,400 acre site straddles the St. James-Ascension Parish line and is mostly surrounded by cane fields and woods, but a few people, including those in the community of Union, live along the Mississippi River and near the plant.
Martin said, however, that those residents were not directly notified about the fire because the wind was cooperating and sending the smoke eastward, which was in the opposition direction of those residents.
La. 70 between La. 3125 and La. 22, a key industrial route that runs past one of the Motiva refinery’s entrances, was closed for about 45 minutes to ease the path for emergency vehicles headed to the scene and for workers leaving it, Martin said. The Sunshine Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi just downstream of the plant, was also closed for a time.
As the thick black smoke was beginning to dissipate from the plant about an hour after the fire started, parish officials announced that the blaze was contained to the H-Oil unit. Shortly before 2 p.m., well after officials said the fire was contained, flames could still be seen periodically shooting from the middle of a towering, blackened structure as jets of water streamed onto the unit.
Even after the fire was declared out, firefighters still sprayed water in the area where the fire occurred, apparently to ensure there were no flareups.
To battle the blaze, Bourgogne said, Motiva officials took the unit out of production and used Motiva firefighters and “inter-company support” to fight the blaze with water and foam.
“We came together today in the face of adversity to protect our people, community and assets, and I am proud to be a part of this team,” he said.
The sheriff said volunteer parish firefighters were called to the scene immediately for backup, but ended up not being needed.
Bourgogne said the company's first priority was community and employee safety but also added later that Motiva was continuing with production in units outside the H-Oil unit.
"The affected unit is shut down, and the rest of the site is running,” Bourgogne said during the news conference at Motiva's conference center off River Road.
When reporters pressed him for what units were still in production, Bourgogne would not provide specifics, saying that was company information.
"We’re making product," he said.
The 225,000-barrel-per-day crude oil refinery produces a variety of gasoline blends, jet and diesel fuel, heating oil, propane, butane, fuel oil and sulfur, a Motiva factsheet says.
Reuters reported U.S. oil product futures prices rose on news of the fire, but Louisiana energy experts said that the blaze is unlikely to affect gasoline or diesel supplies or prices, even if repairs to the charred unit take several months.
"We're operating with surplus gasoline and diesel right now so the other refineries could pick up some of the slack ... or they could eat into this surplus inventory that's built up," said Eric N. Smith, associate director of Tulane University's Energy Institute.
Smith said the H-Oil unit handles the heaviest of the heavy materials left after the oil goes through the first two main processing units. They are far more important to gasoline and diesel production, Smith said.
The H-Oil unit treats the residue and produces a little more liquid, sends it to the fluid cat cracking unit, which produces diesel-type material and fuel oil.
The Motiva factsheet says the Convent refinery is one of only three in the world with an H-Oil unit, also known as a resid hydrocracker.
But Smith said refineries are designed so they can keep operating even if they lose a unit or two, with the exception of the atmospheric distillation unit. Refineries have only one atmospheric distillation unit, which performs a critical first step in the refining process, Smith said. The unit was not apparently affected by the fire.
Units in a refinery separate the lighter hydrocarbons from the heavier oils based on the boiling point, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Smith said without the H-Oil unit, the Convent refinery's efficiency would likely slip from 92 percent to around 80 percent. The resulting drop in gasoline and diesel production at the refinery wouldn't have a big effect on price, he said, because the United States has a glut of gasoline supply now. There's actually a record amount of gas in storage, he added.
Motiva Enterprises, a Houston-based company, refines, markets and distributes fuel in the United States. The company has been owned for years equally by subsidiaries of Saudi Aramco and Shell Oil Company, but earlier this year the company announced that Shell and Aramco would be parting ways.
Under the proposed division, Shell will take control of the two Louisiana refineries — in Convent and Norco — and Aramco would take over the Port Arthur, Texas, facility.
The Convent refinery was built by Texaco in 1967, according to the company’s website.
All Convent employees scheduled to work Friday, August 12th have been notified to return to their normal duties.