Texas: Port Arthur refinery closed by a barrelful of spill
25th June 2012
In what whill become an example to all businesses, all it took was a single barrel of chemicals to bring down the newest, mightiest oil refinery in the United States.
[Reuters reports] Three weeks ago, while workers repaired a minor leak at the Port Arthur, Texas plant owned by Motiva Enterprises, a few gallons a day of so-called 'caustic' was inadvertently seeping into the newly-built crude distillation unit (CDU), the 30-storey-high network of interconnected cylinders and latticed pipelines, the heart of the refining process.
Harmless when mixed with crude, the undiluted caustic vaporized into an invisible but devastating agent of corrosion as the chamber heated up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit (370 Celsius); the chemical gas raced through key units, fouled huge heaters and corroded thousands of feet of stainless steel pipe.
Now, just weeks after they commissioned the biggest U.S. refinery project in a decade, two of the world's biggest oil titans -- Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco , which own Motiva -- are rushing to repair the potentially billion-dollar glitch that has added an embarrassing and costly coda to a landmark $10 billion expansion.
After a five-year effort to double the plant's capacity, making it the largest in the country, they must now reassemble many of the same people and parts for a blitzkrieg fix that may exceed the original $300 million cost of the unit: corrosion experts are flying in from across the world; hundreds of workers are being hired; bespoke 30-inch (75-cm) stainless steel pipelines and 30-story cranes may need to be obtained quickly, according to sources involved in the repairs.
Motiva has said little about the incident. 11 days after it occurred the company confirmed for the first time that the unit might remain shut for 'several months'. Sources say officials are telling workers that the unit could be idle for as long as a year.
On Friday, in response to Reuters questions, Motiva spokeswoman Kayla Macke confirmed the contamination: 'The preliminary inspection indicates that parts of the new unit have been contaminated with elevated levels of caustic.'
The extent of the damage is still not known as portions of the crude unit are too hot to enter, according to the sources. Some areas may not be accessible for weeks.
Motiva has not reached a final conclusion as to the cause of the damage, but has developed a working theory on what experts said appeared to be a rare instance of 'accelerated chemical corrosion'. The unit's intense heat was critical: the rate of corrosion can double with every 10 degrees Celsius.