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State officials are investigating smoke flared from the Wyoming Refining Co. refinery in Newcastle on Sunday afternoon, using a flare system that got the refinery in trouble with state regulators last year.

James Runyan, president of Wyoming Refining Co., said a Sunday afternoon thunderstorm knocked out power to the refinery, located on Main Street in Newcastle. Refineries are pressurized and when the refinery goes down, flare valves open to release pressure and products used in refining. The secondary emergency flare works as a safety measure, Runyan said.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is investigating the incident. It has to determine whether the secondary flare went off. It also has to study data from a nearby sulfur dioxide monitor to make conclusions about air quality. Sulfur dioxide can be dangerous “if the levels are high enough,” said Tanner Shatto, a DEQ district engineer for northeast Wyoming.

Shatto said the Wyoming Refining Co. told him the outage occurred at 4:40 p.m.

“That overflow [secondary] flare is just black smoke,” Shatto said. “It’s a nasty-looking flare.”

“It’s just what we’re refining,” Runyan said about the smoke released into the air. “It’s hydrocarbon products. It’s like natural gas, fuel gas, that’s all it is.”

Shatto said there are two flares at the refinery. The main flare is a smokeless flare.

“So when it burns, it burns in such a way where it’s complete combustion, you don’t see all the black smoke,” he said. “The overflow flare is just an emergency, catastrophic event backup.”

The second flare is relatively new, Shatto said. The DEQ permitted it in August 2009.

“They had enough capacity at the refinery that they needed to build an overflow flare,” he said.

If the DEQ concludes the secondary flare went off, it would be the second time.

The first time was last year. On Aug. 12, 2012, the DEQ discovered the smoke from the secondary flare had 100 percent opacity, meaning the smoke completely lacked transparency, Shatto said. The department issued a notice of violation for the incident on Nov. 9, 2012, according to DEQ documents.

“It’s permitted to be at 20 percent opacity, meaning that the smoke that comes from it, you should see 80 percent of sunlight through it, 20 percent dark. But it’s not built that way. It’s what we call 100 percent opacity. It’s just black smoke.”

This summer, the DEQ administrators signed a settlement with a vice president of the refinery’s previous owner, Denver-based Hermes Consolidated LLC, and a Hermes attorney, DEQ documents state. The company paid a $10,000 fine but did not admit to any allegation in the notice of violation.

Runyan, president of Wyoming Refining Co., declined to discuss whether the secondary flare complies with the permit.

“That’s a matter of debate,” he said.

Former Newcastle resident Terry Elliott, who said he had to move out of town to get away from the refinery for health reasons, is concerned about the air quality with a school nearby.

“It burns your lungs, nose and eyes, they are continuously inflamed,” said Carol Wolfe, who lives about three blocks from the refinery.

Wolfe tries to keep a record of smoke from the refinery but didn’t see Sunday’s.

“This is no surprise to us,” she said. “The biggest thing is the stink.”

On Sunday night, an anonymous person called the National Response Center, an interagency service to which people can report oil and chemical spills, to complain about the smoke from the refinery. The center created a report and referred it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which referred it to DEQ.

“It’s always helpful whether it’s a reporter, whether it’s an emergency responder or whether it’s a public member giving us a call,” DEQ spokesman Keith Guille said. “That’s a great way for us to go and investigate further.”

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Reach state reporter Laura Hancock at 307-266-0581 or at laura.hancock@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter: @laurahancock.

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