09 October 2011

Shell refinery fire at Bukom: a 'bright side'?

Mainstream media reports following the fire seem to be highlighting the 'bright side' of the fire.
Flaring at Shell refinery on Pulau Bukom
This is not a fire, it is flaring at Pulau Bukom refineries
seen from Semakau seagrass meadows, Feb 2010.
Some reports said repair of the refinery "may bring new business opportunities" to other companies. A Straits Times interview with the Shell Chairman, who warned that flaring can be expected, ended by remarking "For Shell, clearly not all fires are so bad after all". We also find out more from recent media reports, including how foam was used from the first time the fire broke out.

The fire a 'business opportunity'?

In Friday's media reports, industry sources were quoted as saying: 'Although the extent of rebuilding the Shell refinery is not known as yet, we think this incident may bring new business opportunities to companies providing civil engineering, construction, equipment rental and/or structural steel works services to the oil majors.'

More information

Some background provided during the the Sunday Times' exclusive interview or Mr Lee Tzu Yang, Shell chairman, who was described as cutting "a cool figure".

What happened after the fire first broke out?

At the site, safety mechanisms had also clicked into place.

First, automatic pumps were activated, spreading foam on the fire.

A drainage system around the pump house area also kicked into gear, pumping any run-off liquids out, away from the fire and pipes.

The fact that all these systems worked was a big relief for Shell, and they played a significant part in helping to keep the gigantic inferno to a contained area measuring 176m by 65m.

'These systems are designed for that purpose, but they may not be designed for that amount,' Mr Lee said.

'So we needed to make sure we could handle the volumes of foam, water and hydrocarbons that came through. And it worked, so that was another confidence-builder.'

Meanwhile floating barriers called 'booms' had also been put out as a precautionary measure, along with a boat that kept watch in case any of the chemicals spilled into the sea. But that did not happen.

More details provided by an interview with SDF on 6 Oct:
From "The fire looked like a tornado", Straits Times 6 Oct 11
SCDF rushed to Pulau Bukom within half an hour of being activated. When they arrived, 40 of Shell's own in-house firefighters had already begun foaming operations, said Lt-Col Ling. This involves applying a 'blanket' of foam over the fire to starve it of oxygen.

The first pipes on fire contained lighter fuels such as gasoline.

Right away, the SCDF was told by Shell to protect two nearby tanks in particular, at all costs. They were not told what these tanks contained. Responding to queries from The Straits Times, Shell would only say they contained 'hydrocarbons for use in a refinery', but declined to be more specific.

The firefighters started using water jets to create 'curtains' around the tanks, to cool them and to prevent pressure from building up. 'When we arrived, the surfaces of the tanks were already blackened,'

The firefighting operations proceeded uneventfully at first, with Shell even announcing at 5.15pm that the fire had been contained - until a sudden surge just an hour later. They realised then that this was no ordinary fire, said Col Anwar.

Underneath the foam blanket, the fire had spread under the network of criss-crossing, interconnecting pipes, which were stacked as high as 1.5m above ground in some places.

'The unique characteristic of this instance was that the area on fire was a myriad of pipes of different sizes and complexity,' he said. As the fire spread further, more pipes became damaged and began leaking, feeding the fire further.

It was after the second surge that the firefighters discovered that liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, was leaking from ruptured pipes - and was also on fire.

This changed the firefighting team's strategy completely.

'An LPG fire is a three-dimensional fire, and you cannot use foam,' said Col Anwar. 'We had to do cooling to prevent an explosion.'

While firefighters kept fighting the fire at its origin with foam as well as water, they switched to using only water where they suspected LPG was burning.


I noticed that earlier reports (compilation on 30 Sep) suggested that water was used to the fight the fire, with foam on stand by. But later reports suggest foam was already being used in the first outbreak of fire. Debby shared more about the impact of fluorosurfactants on the Hantu Blog.

What was the cause of the fire?
Apparently, still unknown.

The SCDF said it had never seen this kind of a fire, described later as 'complex and multi-dimensional'. And even Shell's experts could not figure out what was actually feeding the fire from the myriad pipelines.

They had decided to fly in Shell's global health, safety and environment consultant Evert Jonker to provide more help.

That the situation did not play out worse had much to do with training and rehearsing, Mr Lee firmly believes. He also said 'I am still very, very interested in what caused the fire, because that's the other side of the safety angle that we need to pay attention to, but I'm very glad that on this side, we were able to protect people.'

What has happened after the fire?

A dedicated safety study has been performed for all units adjacent to the incident site, which has confirmed that they are not damaged.

'We can confirm that some operations have continued and some operations will resume at the site but we are unable to comment on operational specifics,' he said.

Shell is now looking at re-connecting the network of lines within the refinery to start up operations without the damaged areas, which are currently under investigation by the Ministry of Manpower and SCDF.

Expect flaring

Mr Lee could not help but warn Singaporeans not to be alarmed when Shell eventually starts up its refinery fully again.

'In a start up or shut down, you will always see a bigger flame!' he quipped.'We don't want the public in Singapore to believe that this is any problem, this is entirely normal. And it is safer to have a bit of a flame than not to have it.'

A fire which is better than no fire? For Shell, clearly not all fires are so bad after all.

What is flaring? What are the impacts of flaring?
Flaring is like an oil slick from the sky. Whatever is burnt off, eventually falls back into the sea. While the flame on a flare may not be as large as that in the fire, flaring may go one for far longer. Here's more about flaring: what is flaring and some flaring observed especially the massive flaring at Pulau Bukom. Massive flaring was recently also seen at Jurong Island.

What is the impact on Pulau Hantu?
Meanwhile, the volunteers with the Hantu Bloggers have just dived the natural reefs at Pulau Hantu which lies just across from Pulau Bukom. I am sure they soon post about what they encountered.
Volunteers from the Hantu Blog diving just across from Pulau Bukom.
Today, volunteers from ReefFriends had to abort their scheduled coral survey at Raffleslighthouse due to strong currents. They dived the patch reefs off Hantu instead and saw lots of colourful marine life. Mei Lin shares more on her blog.

More links

Earlier blog posts about the fire


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