State investigates cause of BP refinery blaze

SEATTLE — State safety inspectors are investigating the cause of a dramatic blaze at Washington’s largest oil refinery Friday near Blaine, as BP launched its own review into why it happened.

The fire broke out in the sole crude processing unit at the BP Cherry Point refinery in northwest Washington, sending plumes of black smoke visible for miles. The fire was extinguished about an hour later, BP spokesman Scott Dean said. One person suffered a minor injury.

It was too early to know what caused the blaze, Dean said Saturday. Other units at the facility are on standby until the company completes an assessment and restart plan, which means the facility is currently not processing crude oil, he added.

“It’s too soon to speculate on a restart (date) or duration of the outage,” Dean said.

Another BP spokesman, William Kidd, said overall production could be halved in the next several days, but the effect on future production won’t be fully known until they know the extent of damage. The refinery still has finished product in tanks to produce gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, he said, adding: “It’s not like our tanks went dry.”

The 1-square-mile refinery employs more than 800 people and can process as much as 230,000 barrels of crude oil a day, mostly transportation fuels, from Alaska.

“Our top priority yesterday was getting the fire under control quickly and making sure no one got hurt,” Dean said. The next steps will be getting a crew safely into the location where the fire occurred, he said.

A BP report overnight to the National Response Center suggested a flange fire had started between the north vacuum heater and the north vacuum tower of the crude unit, but “that is not at all confirmed,” Kidd told the Bellingham Herald.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested the air near the facility and at locations downwind and found no measurable threats from airborne pollutants related to the fire, according to spokesman Mark MacIntyre.

“No readings were found to be above background or demonstrate any level of concern,” Andy Smith, EPA’s federal on-scene coordinator, said in a statement Saturday.

Meanwhile, BP crews were working to secure the site where the fire occurred, so it may be a couple days before inspectors can do an initial walk-through, Department of Labor and Industries spokesman Hector Castro said.

State inspectors could begin interviewing employees as early as Tuesday, Castro said.

All 848 employees and contractors on site were accounted for early on during the fire, BP refinery manager Stacey McDaniel said in a statement. One contract employee was treated at the scene for a knee injury during the evacuation and was later released from a hospital.

According to the company website, the Cherry Point refinery supplies about 20 percent of Washington state’s gasoline, and the majority of the jet fuel used in Seattle, Vancouver and Portland, Ore., airports. The refinery has the ability to produce 2.5 million gallons of jet fuel, 3.5 million gallons of gasoline, 2.2 million gallons of diesel, 360,000 gallons of butane and 140,000 gallons of propane.

In 2010, the refinery was fined more than $69,000 for 13 serious safety violations, but those were not in the crude processing unit where the fire occurred, Castro said. He added that all five of the state’s refineries have been fined for safety regulations.

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