COMMENTARY: The Delaware City Refinery and a bad governor


I’ve written about the Delaware City Refinery so many times, over so many years, that it’s hard to believe more is needed. It’s tiresome to think about. It never ends. Yet here we go yet again.

The refinery has operated under a number of owners beginning with Tidewater Oil. It started up in 1956 or 57, before the time of meaningful environmental regulation and took out a national ad in Reader’s Digest promising “Country sweet air for our neighbors.

I don’t have the details, but old timers have spoken of lots of (chicanery) involving elected officials of the time.

The refinery was designed especially to process high-sulfur “sour” crude from overseas. The sulfur would be gotten rid of by belching it up smokestacks into the air of Delaware and South Jersey, along with many other harmful pollutants to the tune of millions of pounds per year. Within a year, metal roofs of building in the area were dissolving.

Residents began coughing and choking, asthma increased, strokes and heart attacks increased. How many residents have been sickened, or worse, from the refinery emissions? We will probably never know as the Delaware Division of Public Health has never shown interest in finding out. Beyond a doubt, many, many people have suffered and died from refinery pollution over the past 70 years.

Workers died from poison gases, fires, accidents and explosions. Nobody seems to have kept track of the total numbers.

In addition to pollution of the air, massive amounts of all sorts of pollutants were and are dumped into the Delaware River. John Nickle of Delaware City once calculated that the water permit of the refinery, due to defective drafting, would allow the dumping of more “oil and grease” into the river every year than the Exxon Valdez spilled on the coast of Alaska. Green Delaware complained about this for years but the permits weren’t fixed.

Millions of fish and larvae were killed every year by the refinery cooling water systems, which look as if they were intentionally designed as fish traps. The combination of impingement (caught on intake screens), entrainment (pumped through the system and cooked), and toxic pollutants has greatly reduced marine populations in the Delaware Estuary and likely caused many illnesses when some of the remaining were unwisely eaten.

Decades of spills and leaks contaminated the groundwater underneath and around the refinery.

Over the decades, citizens called for cleaning up the refinery. Unions supported keeping it dirty. Members of the General Assembly pocketed campaign contributions, played golf with refinery lobbyists, and betrayed the people of Delaware over and over again. For-sale academics at the University of Delaware ginned up one-sided reports on the wonderful economic benefits of the facility. No one tallied up the costs.

From time to time, technical improvements were made, but the refinery also expanded to process more oil. Since restarting, the refinery has started to bring in large amounts of crude by rail, adding a whole new set of “bomb train” hazards.

Consider the scale of things: The refinery has a present throughput capacity on the order of 210,000 thousand barrels (8.9 million gallons) per day. (Numbers from different sources vary.) The price of crude oil fluctuates, but supposing it to be $50/barrel, and the refinery running full blast, then the daily bill for crude oil would be about $10.5 million. Annually, close to $4 billion.

Now, purely hypothetically of course, lets suppose that the refinery allocated an average of $10,000 for an annual lease on each of the 62 members of the Delaware legislature, $5,000 for an annual lease on each of the 13 New Castle Council members, and $100,000 for an annual, renewable lease on the governor, whomever it happened to be. That would add up to a $785,000 annual investment, less than 10 percent of one day’s crude oil bill. In fact, without breaching 10 percent of one day’s crude oil bill, the refinery would have over $265,000 left over, to invest in the Girl Scouts, “public” broadcasting, civic associations, fireworks for Delaware City, “Newspapers in Education” (industrial propaganda tabloids distributed in the schools), corrupt “environmental organizations,” etc.

Feeble as was and is the enforcement of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, etc, the refinery consumed a large proportion of the total enforcement resources of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. (Of course, industrial interests make sure enforcement is kept weak.)

At one time, citizens could come to a “public hearing” on permits for the refinery. They could complain, and ask questions of DNREC and refinery officials. DNREC Hearing Officer Rod Thompson tried to maintain an appearance of propriety. But, when citizens made effective use of these hearings they were eliminated in favor of meaningless dog and pony shows.

A key figure in the elimination of meaningful hearings was Dave Small. Likely, in the eyes of Governor Jack Markell, that was a key reason for making him the head of the DNREC. The confirmation of Small as DNREC secretary was one of the more dishonorable votes in the history of the Delaware Senate.

Small has another special connection to the refinery: For many years, after a gross accident or release, Small, DNREC’s chief flack (he has no technical knowledge or interests or qualifications we know of) would be rolled out like an organic tape player to say something like “There was no damage to human health or the environment,” a statement that would be obediently regurgitated in Delaware’s media.

In this decades-long take of error and dishonor, there are a couple of bright spots.

(1) In the 1960s Shell Oil was planning another refinery in Delaware. Pols were on the payroll, survey monuments were in the ground. By great good fortune Delaware at that moment--not before or since that I know of--Delaware had a governor, Russ Peterson, with both technical grasp and integrity. Peterson was smart enough to see that with the damage done by one refinery, another near by would create truly intolerable conditions.

Peterson spearheaded the enactment of the Delaware Coastal Zone Act, specifically aimed at keeping out another refinery. Delaware had a narrow escape--although Shell would reappear decades later as operator and part owner of the existing refinery. (I’ve written in detail about Peterson and the Coastal Zone Act:)

(2) On Nov. 20, 2009, the Delaware City Refinery shut down, supposedly never to reopen.

Delaware had a shot at real improvement in health and quality of life.

But it was not to be, due to what I want to call The Malice of Markell.

Markell and his people put together a secret scam to reopen the refinery. Environmental requirements would be relaxed, millions of dollars of state money would be handed to the new owners. The scheme was put together in secret, at least in secrecy from the public. Nobody clued Green Delaware in. Many legislators certainly knew.

Nobody from the DNREC leaked it to us, but it’s unlikely that the environmental regulators would have been the first to know. Some DNREC staff saw an operating refinery as employment security.

So the refinery started back up in October, 2011. So did the stinks, the leaks, the releases, the explosions, the injuries, the asthma attacks, the mega-insulting “public hearings.” The whole filthy business back again. Yes, a few hundred jobs, relatively good paying if dangerous, also came back. But these jobs are a tiny proportion of the jobs in Delaware. How much are they worth?

One difference: it’s 2016, not 1956, We know the hydrocarbons need to be left in the ground lest the planet fry. We know that Delaware is the lowest lying coastal state, the first to be under water as global warming raises the sea level. The extensive coastal flooding a few days ago is just a minor head-up on what is coming.

On Nov. 20, 2015, Gov. Jack Markell issued a statement:

“Today, the Delaware City Refinery is up and running more efficiently, cleanly, and safely than ever, and we should pause and take note of what that says about the spirit and fortitude of our people,” said Gov. Markell. “Our work is far from done, but six years after the refinery shuttered, it represents the ability of our people to keep Delaware moving forward.”

This statement came weeks after a major fire and flaring episode at the Refinery on Aug 21 and hospitalization of three injured workers on Aug 28th. Subsequent to Markell’s statement, the Refinery has self-reported releases of sulfur dioxide, benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, and ammonia. (A “release’ means more than is released under normal operations and allowed by permit.)

Is that what you meant, Governor, by “more efficiently, cleanly, and safely than ever ...” Fires, accidents, injuries, thousands and thousand of pounds of toxic, poisonous, carcinogenic crap belched into the air we all breathe?

It took me a while to realize that Markell’s statement was much like Donald Trump’s: An artful combination of emotional appeals and counterfactual BS. Trump; “Make our country great again!” Markell: “Keep Delaware moving forward.”

The finishing episode for the moment: During the recent blizzard, the Refinery reportedly experienced a power failure, leading to major “flaring” and releases of nasty chemicals.

Let’s think about an industrial facility so dangerous, so poorly designed and operated, that it cannot be shut down safely. A facility that can’t manage a power failure without major chemical releases. A facility with a 70 year history of causing major problems and failing to find solutions. Does this sound like the sort of facility that should have been (re)imposed on the people of Delaware without their knowledge or consent? That should have been restarted in the protected Coastal Zone.

Why weren’t the people of Delaware given a say in whether the Refinery should be restarted? Perhaps because the would have been obvious?

For this alone, the governor and legislature of Delaware have shown themselves unworthy. But, perhaps, well-deserving of impeachment. I class them with the officials responsible for the lead poisoning of the residents of Flint, Michegan. They have evil designs on the Coastal Zone Act itself, likely coming up in the current session. They are a disgrace.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Alan Muller is executive director of Green Delaware a community-based organization working on environment and public health issues.

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