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$900,000 Delaware City refinery settlement includes permit changes

Delaware Public Media

The Delaware City Refining Company will pay DNREC administrative penalties totaling $950,000 to resolve a litany of air quality violations spanning from the refinery’s restart in 2010 up to last October.


The penalties are part of a settlement signed last week.


They also include a Secretary’s Order from 2013 which asked the refinery to pay almost $500,000. It does not resolve violations from the refinery fire that resulted in the release of more than three tons of combined air pollutants last February. 

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin says the deal helps clear out a backlog of the refinery’s unresolved air violations. “It kind of brings us a little more up to date so that we can move more swiftly on any new violations that we are addressing,” he said. 

The settlement also resolves several permit appeals in which the refinery challenged short-term, equipment-specific emissions limits in favor of an overall yearly cap on refinery emissions. 

Under the settlement, DNREC has drafted changes to some of the refinery’s permits— including one governing emissions from the facility’s Combined Cycle Unit of pollutants including nitrogen oxides (NOx). 

Nitrogen oxides are a family of seven compounds, the most prevalent of which is nitrogen dioxide. It reacts in the atmosphere to form acid rain and ozone, according to the EPA. New Castle County has been in non-attainment for the National Ambient Air Quality Standard 8-hour ozone standard set in 2008 since 2012.  

The draft permit changes under the settlement turn what are currently hourly average NOx limits on the refinery’s Combined Cycle Unit into 24-hour average limits, and maintains higher hourly limits for periods of malfunction or planned maintenance of the unit’s Selective Catalytic Reduction air pollution control device—or periods when the refinery has been granted a “temporary alternative limit” for NOx emissions from the unit.

“The refinery is gaining some operational flexibility so that if you have these sort of short periods of higher emission release because of something happening within, this gives them more protection against a permit violation,” said Ken Kristl, environmental law professor at Widener’s Delaware Law School. 

Sec. Garvin says the refinery sought clarification on the flexibility it had under its emission permits, while DNREC is seeking to ensure that permit limits protect human health and the environment. 

“We’ve been able, through this agreement, to work out both short-term limits while also taking into account their yearly average as it relates to potential some short-term upsets that might happen at the refinery,” he said. 

He adds that being able to put in place permits that “will not be under appeal” provides a clearer roadmap for the refinery, his agency as well as the public. 

The draft permit modifications will be posted for public comment. 

A Delaware City Refining Company spokeswoman said with this settlement agreement behind them, the company remains “committed to operating the refinery safely, reliably, and in an environmentally responsible manner.”

Although the settlement covers more than eight years of violations, Kristl views the fact that it excludes some air violations as positive. 

“What’s good from my perspective is the penalty and ... waiver that’s built into this applies only to the things that are on Attachment A,” he said. “So other issues that DNREC has with the refinery, this isn’t universally wiping the slate clean.”

DNREC officials say the recent settlement does not preclude the agency from pursuing penalties for the refinery fire last February and any other violations that have occurred since the end of October, 2018. 

According to a Notice of Violation letter sent by DNREC to the refinery manager Jeffrey Coleman in May, the February 3 fire was caused by the failure of a water pipe that had been left inadequately winterized during sub-freezing temperatures. A cascade of other leaks and electrical damage occurred during the fire, and a flaring event began minutes after the initial loss of containment. The fire lasted nearly 13 hours. The flaring event lasted 22 hours, ending the next morning. 

The refinery’s flare system is not allowed to discharge any pollutants under its governing permit. The refinery violated this by discharging more than 842  pounds of hydrocarbons, 592 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 438 pounds of carbon monoxide, 80 pounds of nitrogen oxides and two pounds of hydrogen sulfide due to the fire, as well as an additional 4,300 pounds of sulfur dioxide from flaring. 

The refinery has not been fined for any violations resulting from the February fire and subsequent flaring, but DNREC officials say a Notice of Violation can be a prelude to further enforcement actions.

This story has been updated to clarify the parameters of the draft permit changes.

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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