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Mishaps plague Sinclair refinery

Safety concerns mount among area residents, officials

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A fire in March forced the Sinclair oil refinery in the tiny town of Sinclair to operate at about half-capacity for much of April.

Then on May 3, a floating roof on a storage tank at the refinery sank and ripped a hole in the metal shell. Nearly 3 million gallons of a highly flammable gasoline-grade fuel spilled onto the ground and breached the front-line containment structure.

Somehow, there was no ignition. No explosion. No fire. No injuries -- or worse -- among the dozens of workers at the refinery or the citizens of Sinclair.

"One spark in the right place, and then who knows?" said Carbon County Commission Chairman Terry Weikum. "That was the one incident that really upset me, because I don't feel they made enough notification to protect the citizens or themselves. We found out about it later."

Problems continued at the refinery, which is owned by Sinclair Oil Corp. Nearby residents complained of a strong odor, mostly because of an ongoing soil remediation effort.

And there were more spills.

All told, 13 liquid and gaseous spills have been reported this year to either the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality or the federal National Response Center.

Two of the spills occurred in the span of just a few hours on Monday. The refinery released 309 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and then spilled 2,300 gallons of isobutene, according DEQ.

Yet the refinery continues to operate unreserved. DEQ officials say they've asked management at the refinery to self-report information related to the events, which are being investigated as individual incidents.

"I can understand odors from a refinery. But the release of toxic chemicals and things that can blow sky-high just scares the daylights out of me. When is enough enough?" said Rawlins resident Barbara Parsons, a longtime board member of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Calls from the Star-Tribune to Sinclair's headquarters in Utah this week were not returned.

DEQ Administrator John Corra said that although each mishap at the refinery is investigated separately, his agency is asking Sinclair to provide assurances the series of mishaps will not continue. He said refinery personnel are scheduled to meet with DEQ regulators soon.

"We know that there are malfunctions. Stuff will happen from time to time. But there has been one heck of a lot going on at that refinery this year," Corra said. "So we're bringing them in to see if we can get some comfort level that there is an end to this series of events."

The refinery could face monetary penalties once the investigations are completed.

After the 3 million-gallon fuel spill in May, state and local officials complained that the refinery wasn't issuing proper or timely notification. Since, both state and Carbon County officials say the refinery has been more responsive.

"I really appreciate them improving the communication," Weikum said.

Parsons also agreed the refinery has been more responsive to local officials and residents. However, the track record this year is still cause for alarm. Not only is the refinery embedded in the town of Sinclair, but it's also in close proximity to Interstate 80 and the North Platte River.

"I really think DEQ has been working on this. I really think they're making an effort on this. But maybe it's time for some penalties," Parsons said.

A "delayed coker" was installed at the refinery in 2008, according to Sinclair. The unit is specifically designed to handle heavy, or sour, crude. Separately, refining capacity was increased from 71,500 barrels per day to 83,000 barrels per day.

Contact energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin.bleizeffer@trib.com. Go to http://tribtown.trib.com/DustinBleizeffer/blog to read Dustin's energy blog

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