Refinery simmers flare scares

Alexis Barker, NLJ News Editor

A video circulating on Facebook features an intense flare at the Wyoming Refining Co. in Newcastle on Sept. 10. The video depicts flares shooting into the sky with a heavy plume of black smoke accompanying the flames. 

The video sparked concerns among several people, which were made public through various comments and shares on the social media platform. Comments included questions on why the person who posted the video had not left the area and what had caused the intense flares. 

According to Mike Farnsworth, the secondary flare was triggered by overpressure in an upset unit. Farnsworth is president of the company.  Mike Baldwin, the refinery’s health, safety, security and environment manager, said that there was no direct link between the issues on Sept. 10 and the “power blips” that shut the refinery down on Aug. 30 and 31. 

“Our secondary flare operates when the main flare is overloaded, which is how it’s designed,” he said. “This prevents the main flare from becoming overloaded.” 

While unsightly, the flares posed no safety concerns related to the incident, Farnsworth said. 

“The secondary flare doesn’t have air assistance, which is why it smokes more. Although unsightly, from a visual standpoint, the system operated as designed to maintain the safety of our refinery,” he continued, noting that it is not unusual for the safety feature to be triggered. “This does happen occasionally, as I’m sure you’re aware. We’ve had this same discussion over the years,” Farnsworth stated.

According to Baldwin, the flares are part of a safety system that collects hydrocarbons from a process unit. 

“The purpose of the flares is to combust these hydrocarbon gases so they no longer present a flammability, fire, explosion hazard,” Baldwin said. “If the flares didn’t work, the released hydrocarbon would be free to travel until they found an ignition source and would present a significant danger to personnel, equipment and the surrounding community.” 

Similar to the incident in August, Baldwin said, the smoke from the flare is primarily soot, similar to the black smoke produced by a campfire. 

“Due to the height of the flare towers and the heat produced from the flame, the soot should travel up into the atmosphere and be readily dispersed,” he said. “And while the flaring can be an intimidating sight, these devices are doing their job to safely combust the hydrocarbon gases to protect the refinery and surrounding community.” 

Safety, Baldwin said, is the refinery’s top priority. He noted that the company takes any flaring event seriously and investigates the event to determine the cause and identify corrective actions to be taken to prevent reoccurrence. 

If an emergency is present, the refinery has emergency plans that include the designation of an on-site management employee to act as incident commander, Baldwin said. 

“The role of the incident commander is to contain and control the release, as well as evaluate the release for potential off-site impacts,” he said. “If there is a concern for potential off-site impact, the refinery would notify the public by calling 911 to inform local responders of the nature of the event and potentially request additional resources.”

Don Steveson — fire chief for emergency response at the refinery, local emergency planning commission member and Newcastle Volunteer Fire Department member — explained that refinery employees are trained to respond and take actions to control an emergency situation. The three primary goals of their response are “life safety, incident stabilization and resource conservation,” he said. 

Once the on-site commander is established, per refinery emergency plans, that individual will do an initial assessment of the possible hazards to the health of on-site and off-site personnel. Depending on the type and severity of the emergency, Steveson said, the incident commander will require refinery management to be alerted and additional employees and contractors can be called in as needed. 

“The incident commander is responsible for making the determination of possible hazards to employees and the surrounding community,” Steveson said. “If it is determined that the emergency has the potential for off-site impacts, the incident commander will activate the company’s facility response plan, which uses regulatory-required Incident Command Structure.” 

Notifications required by the plan include calling 911 to alert law enforcement and local emergency responders. Steveson said that they will be given information on the nature of the emergency, known hazards associated with any released material and any anticipated response required by local emergency response agencies — Newcastle Police Department, Newcastle Volunteer Fire Department, Newcastle Ambulance Services and other medical services.

“The notification may include requests such as shelter-in place for the (Newcastle) middle school and (Newcastle) high school, along with any nearby residents and business owners that may be impacted by the emergency and the Weston County hospital (Weston County Health Services) to inform them of the material released, hazards of the material and provide safety data sheets, if needed,” Steveson said. 

The incident command structure used also allows for the creation of a joint command staff including the incident commander, representatives from local emergency response groups and representatives from state and federal agencies, he added. This staff would be responsible for coordinating the response of all the involved companies and agencies responding. 

“This would include making notifications to the local emergency planning commission, state emergency planning commission, National Response Center and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality,” Steveson said. “If additional resources are needed, the incident commander and joint command staff could include Weston County Homeland Security to assist with state response team activation or assist with community shelter-in-place or evacuation to work in conjunction with the local police department (Newcastle Police Department), sheriff’s office (Weston County Sheriff’s Office), fire department (Newcastle Volunteer Fire Department) and highway patrol (Wyoming Highway Patrol).” 

According to Steveson, the Wyoming Refining Co./Wyoming Pipeline Co. conducts annual drills to practice and prepare for emergency response situations. These drills simulate some type of emergency that would require activation of the facility’s emergency plans, such as a spill to a waterway or release of toxic gas. 

In addition to the refinery personnel, he said, the company has historically invited local emergency response groups and agencies to participate in the drills. This allows for the development of the teamwork necessary to execute this type of response, Steveson said.

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