04 October 2011

Shell refinery fire at Bukom: what caused it?

"The fire broke out during preparation work for maintenance" preliminary findings from the investigation showed, according to recent mainstream media reports.
Foaming operations at the fire site,
photo from Channel NewsAsia 1 Oct 11
Debby Ng of the Hantu Bloggers also shared a first look at the impact on the natural reefs at Pulau Hantu.

Here's more information gleaned from recent mainstream media reports:

"Part of the preparation work involved the draining of residual oil in a pipeline and removing it by means of a suction truck. The fire had subsequently spread and escalated into a major fire within the pump house area." according to the Ministry of Manpower's Occupational Safety and Health Inspectorate which conducted the investigations. The Straits Times also added that "although the statement did not explicitly say so, The Straits Times understands that in trying to clear the area of oil before maintenance work started, the truck could have caused a spark that ignited the oil."

Most industry observers say that the complication in Shell's case arises because the fire occurred at a pumphouse area where there is a complex network of oil pipelines for fuel distribution connected to tankage and plants.

What is the current situation at Bukom?
Up till Sunday, traces of fuel vapour could still be detected in the affected area. The Singapore Civil Defence Force began a phased withdrawal of its fire-fighting team from the refinery on Sunday, but will maintain a small presence on Bukom to support Shell and will fully withdraw once the situation is stable, Shell said. In the first draw-down phase, SCDF brought back 50 personnel and 16 vehicles. Fifty personnel and 18 vehicles remain on the island to support Shell.

Shell and the authorities are monitoring the situation, while foaming operations continue in parts of the incident site.

What about the refinery shutdown?
The company has started shutting down the rest of the refinery, except for those parts providing utilities, as a safety precaution. Shell does not expect to restart any of its Bukom units until a thorough investigation has been done and it is safe to do so. This is despite damage being limited to just the vicinity of a pumphouse, with other facilities and units unaffected, a Shell spokesman said. The refinery is expected to be shut for at least a month, according to a Reuters report over the weekend, which cited industry sources. Shell also plans to shut its naphtha cracker at Bukom, Bloomberg reported yesterday, citing a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

Shipping sources said the refinery resumed tanker berthing operations Monday morning.

What about air and water quality?
Shell is conducting checks on air quality around Pulau Bukom four times a day. There were no reports of water quality checks.

What is the current situation at Pulau Hantu?
Debby Ng of the Hantu Bloggers visited Pulau Hantu on Sunday with Jeffrey Low of NParks to check out the situation. They went for a quick walk on the shore, and also dived the reef. During the dive Debby saw lots of different kinds of nudibranchs and fishes, including a pair of Leopard grouper (Plectropomus leopardus) which really made her day as these fish not common. For more about her trip, see her blog post on the Hantu Blog. She adds, however, that "without any comprehensive tests though, we can only speculate the causes and potential effects of the recent fire."
Reefs off Pulau Hantu after the refinery fire,
photo by Debby Ng on the Hantu Blog.

What is foaming and what are some of the environmental impacts of firefighting foam?
Debby also shared more about this important issue in another blog post on the Hantu Blog.

Thanks Debby and Jeff for checking up on Hantu!

More links
Earlier blog posts about the fire

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