A recently expanded oil refinery plant in Port Arthur, Texas was brought to its knees by an essential ingredient to the refining process: a “caustic” chemical which is normally diluted and mixed in to neutralize the acid in the crude oil. Reuters is reporting that when diluted it is said to be harmless, but when spilled on its own it heated up and vaporized into a gas that corroded plant heaters, storage facilities, and stainless steel pipe, stalling the plant’s ability to process some of its 600,000 barrels of oil per day.

The plant, the largest in the country, is operated by Motiva Enterprises and owned through a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco. The part affected by the spill was a newly built distillation unit, and the damage went unnoticed until two fires erupted
near the still. Initially thought to be just a leaking valve, crews spent a week looking for the culprit. By the time they found that the vaporized caustic had caused dramatic corrosion, it was too late: that part of the plant had to be shut down, costing it over 300,000 barrels per day worth of refining capacity.

“The preliminary inspection indicates that parts of the new unit have been contaminated with elevated levels of caustic,” said Motiva spokeswoman Kayla Macke in a moment of candor to Reuters. It’s not often we hear oil companies admit that something could have gone wrong at a facility. Each day that the destroyed still remains silent, the company loses $1.5 million in profits. It is expected to cost $300 million to make the necessary fixes, nearly what the expansion project cost in the first place.

To what extent the plant is damaged is still unknown, as some areas are still to hot to get close to. But a chemical spill of this nature at an oil refinery plant serves as a reminder that the fossil fuels we burn every day to power our homes, cars, and lives do not come without potentially deadly real-life detrimental effects on our environment. And while some people may not like the looks of them, last time I checked there had never been a wind spill at a wind farm. I’ll take clean energy over dirty energy any day of the week.

[via ScientificAmerican]

Image Credit: Motiva Enterprises