Officials suspect hammer swing sparked Motiva fire

Motiva Enterprises LLC officials believe a scaffolding worker’s errant hammer swing sparked a Feb. 24 fire in a diesel-producing unit inside their 750-acre refinery complex in St. James Parish.

But the Houston-based refiner is continuing to investigate the root cause and what chemicals may have been released at the Convent facility, a new preliminary company report says.

The worker, who was trying to remove a bar in scaffolding being disassembled at the HTU-2 hydrotreater unit, swung and missed the scaffold, instead striking half-inch-wide tubing on the unit about 3:31 p.m. Feb. 24.

The tubing broke loose and released flammable gaseous hydrogen and diesel-range hydrocarbons, Motiva reported to the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Shell Oil officials have said internal plant firefighters extinguished the subsequent fire in the 235,000-barrel-per-day plant along the Mississippi River between La. 70 and River Road. The new report says the fire was over at 4:25 p.m. Feb. 24.

Kevin Hardy Jr., Motiva’s Convent refinery spokesman, said Friday that repairs on the damaged unit are complete.

“And we expect it to be fully operational by the weekend,” he said.

Motiva is a joint venture of Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia. Motiva is managed by Shell. The Convent refinery is one of three owned by the partnership, the Motiva website says.

Shell’s website says hydrotreating reduces sulfur, nitrogen and other compounds in crude oil and enhances other qualities to produce cleaner fuels. Louisiana refineries traditionally refine what is known as “sour” crude, which has a high sulfur content.

Hardy said the HTU-2 unit makes diesel.

Known as a seven-day letter, Motiva’s new report is dated March 3 but was made public Friday on DEQ’s public records database. The report details not only what Motiva says happened in the fire but also what chemicals may have been released.

Motiva told DEQ the unit fire and subsequent flaring — done to bring the damaged unit down and stabilize the situation — may have resulted in releases of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide above levels already authorized in the facility’s air permit.

Greg Langley, DEQ spokesman, said Friday that Motiva has 60 days to complete calculations on how much was released.

Motiva said in its report that it was performing those calculations already but added the materials were probably burned in the fire or in the flare.

“They were then dispersed naturally into the air,” report says. Any unburned materials were captured by a secondary containment system on the unit and recycled back into the refinery, the report says.

Shell officials have said the fire resulted in no injuries and no off-site air impact based on fenceline monitoring.

Hardy provided a summary table Friday of readings from handheld monitors that showed no detections were collected between 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Feb. 24 at seven locations between the Sunshine Bridge and La. 70.

The fire occurred during a major round of maintenance at the plant, but Shell officials have said the unit fire was not related to that work. DEQ permit records show another hydrotreater unit and other equipment are undergoing what’s known as a turnaround.

Shell officials had declined to identify the damaged unit to news outlets Feb. 24, citing company policy. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade raised complaints then, saying the Clean Air Act requires disclosure to DEQ and arguing the public has a right to know also.

But DEQ officials have said Motiva officials identified the unit to them within 13 minutes of the incident through a special hotline.

“They did report what unit it was to the people that had to respond it,” said Jean Kelly, DEQ spokeswoman.