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Residents respond to Delaware City Refinery fire

DelDOT traffic camera
Screenshot of the Wrangle Hill DelDOT traffic camera Sunday afternoon

After Sunday’s fire at the Delaware City Refinery, some residents are complaining of poor communication and unanswered questions.


The fire at the Delaware City Refinery crude unit Sunday burned for over 12 hours, according to officials. Roads were blocked off and residents in other cities reported smelling smoke.

“As I was sitting there watching what was going on, I knew where things were so I could pack up my car and leave if I had to quickly,” said Kristina Lynn, who lives off  Rt. 9 in Delaware City.

Lynn felt there was not enough communication from government officials during the fire.

"I don’t have a landline. So they had a robocall, and I didn’t get it. And I think that’s most of the community these days,” she said. She saw a tweet from the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) several hours after the fire started.

Unknown amounts of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide were released from the Refinery starting around noon, according to a notification from the Delaware City Refinery through the Delaware Environmental Release Notification System (DERNS). The release duration is described as “continuous.” DNREC officials say release of more than 100 lbs. of sulfur dioxide must be reported to DERNS.

Hydrogen sulfide is flammable and “extremely hazardous,” according to OSHA,  causing coma or death at high concentrations. Sulfur dioxide can harm the respiratory system, especially for sensitive groups, and can contribute to fine particulate matter pollution, according to the EPA.

A DNREC official confirmed that intermittent flaring occurred throughout the fire at the Refinery Sunday. The Refinery is permitted by DNREC to operate its flare system to dispose of combustible gases that are released during refinery upsets, startups, and shutdowns. According to DNREC officials, flaring converts toxic hydrogen sulfide into less dangerous sulfur dioxide.

DNREC notes the exact amounts of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide released Sunday are not yet known.

But the agency says they did not detect either of these pollutants in the air Sunday.

A DNREC statement issued Monday says “all community and onsite air monitoring by both DNREC and the Delaware National Guard’s 31st Civil Support Team was ‘non-detect’ for the pollutants hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide from the time the fire started just after noon Sunday into the evening.”

DNREC also says volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were not detected at hazardous levels.

“I have asked the director of the Division of Air Quality how did you determine that? Were air monitors used? Where were they located? What were the readings? And so far I haven’t had any of those questions addressed,” said environmental advocate Amy Roe.

Roe lives in downtown Newark, and where she says she felt the effects of Sunday’s fire.

“I smelled odors in my house. People in my neighborhood reported odors. My father that lives on the other side of town reported odors. To say there was no environmental issues I think is very disingenuous, and misleading,” she said.

As administrator of the Delaware City Environmental Coalition facebook group, Roe says she received several inquiries Sunday about what was happening at the Refinery.

“We got reports into the Environmental Coalition that people as far away as Felton were smelling the odor,” she said. “This was visible from New Jersey. I heard yesterday that people in Cecil County were experiencing this.”

DNREC said in a statement Monday that “odors do not necessarily equate to unhealthy levels of air pollution emissions.”

Before the fire, Sunday was already forecast to be a “code orange” day for particulate levels in Delaware — meaning air quality is unhealthy for sensitive groups. Monday was a code orange “action day.”

“Then we get a refinery fire, and there are no environmental issues?” said Roe. “I don’t know, that just does not make sense to me. There’s something very wrong there.”

Roe likened the situation to one that occurred in November when toxic gas was released from the Croda surfactant plant in New Castle. Surrounding communities complained of poor communication by company and government officials during the incident, which resulted in the temporary closure of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

Roe says she hopes Sunday’s incident at the Refinery results in a community meeting like the one that was held following the Croda leak.

Delaware City Refining Company and DNREC officials say they are investigating the cause of Sunday’s fire at the Refinery. The State Fire Marshal is also investigating.


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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