Black smoke and flames billowed for hours over Saint John on Thanksgiving Day after an explosion at the Irving Oil Refinery rattled windows across the city.
Although witnesses described a “boom” that shook neighbourhoods around 10 a.m., Irving Oil confirmed on Twitter on Monday afternoon that all of its workers and contractors were “safely accounted for.”
As many as 3,000 people were at the 78-acre industrial facility on Monday – but most of it was shut down for major maintenance, and nearly all were contractors working on the turn-around. Five were taken to hospital with non-life threatening injuries, Saint John’s local hospital network said. All five were discharged.
A company official told reporters there had been a malfunction in the refinery’s diesel treating unit, where sulphur is removed from diesel fuel.
Gerry Graves was sitting on the edge of his bed when the windows of his uptown apartment started to rattle. When he looked out and saw more traffic than usual, he thought maybe there had been a tractor-trailer accident.
Curious, he headed outside and had walked only a half block before the plume of black smoke came into view. He instantly knew it was coming from the refinery about two kilometres away.
Mr. Graves, who is a mason, said he works there regularly.
“I’m usually working shutdowns,” he said, noting that he missed this one because he had booked another job.
“The more I look at the smoke, the more I realize, yeah, I could’ve very well been there,” Mr. Graves said by phone on Monday morning.
The Irving Oil refinery is an anchor of local industry, with the Irving family’s name splashed across tanks on a major artery of the city’s east side. It is Canada’s largest refinery, producing – according to the company’s website – more than 320,000 barrels of “finished energy products” a day.
Heather Adams, who lives two blocks away, was working at home when she felt her desk shake. It did not seem like an earthquake, she said – more like a truck had just driven into the house.
As she ran up the stairs, she looked out the window.
“Everyone on the street was out there, looking at the refinery,” she said. She knew a shutdown was going on – which means more people would be working than usual.
Ms. Adams and her 22-year-old son got in the car and headed toward the refinery to see what was happening. She took a video of the thick black smoke and flames erupting from the facility.
“It looked really bad,” she said. “It was quite surreal to see all of the firetrucks, and having to pull over for them to go by. We weren’t less than five minutes out the door after the boom.”
Saint John Mayor Don Darling said the city is working with Irving Oil and the province’s Emergency Measures Organization (EMO), which co-ordinates responses to such events, to assess the situation. Work Safe New Brunswick has launched an investigation, and the EMO is working with the province’s Ministry of Environment to monitor the air quality.
He said no evacuation is planned for the area, but initially encouraged people to stay in their homes and away from the site. He said the refinery has been shut down, and regulators will decide when it is ready to resume operations.
The City of Saint John later posted on social media that residents in the area were no longer being asked to “shelter in place,” and police tweeted that all roads had been reopened.
Sean Tucker, an associate professor at the University of Regina, started studying the culture of safety in oil refineries after two explosions at the Federated Co-op refinery in Regina, in 2011 and 2013.
Although the company and local hospital said only five people were treated for injuries, Mr. Tucker cautioned that the psychological impact of an earth-shaking explosion, as this was described, might not yet be clear.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if some of these workers who were on site, who sustained minor physical injuries, could be at risk for psychological injuries and possibly [post-traumatic stress disorder]," he said.
In a video posted to social media, Mr. Darling said he is grateful nobody was killed.
“We have to be much to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving Monday,” he said.
With a report from The Canadian Press