March 14, 2003

Sunoco promised to significantly reduce the amount of pollutants its Marcus Hook refinery puts into the air. But representatives of several environmental organizations questioned whether the company intends to do all it could in that regard and charged the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control with failure to require it to do so.

Stephen Martini, lead environmental engineer at the refinery, told a combined public hearing on Sunoco's applications for air quality and Coastal Zone Act permits to build and operate a sulfur-recovery unit that the unit will emit a total of up to 65.1 long tons a year of five regulated pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, but that the shutdown of three boilers on the Delaware side of the plant will more than offset that by eliminating discharges totaling 84 long tons. A long ton is 2,240 pounds.

"That is an average. We hope to do better than that," Paul Braun, senior environmental engineer, said with reference to the emissions.

Sunoco agreed to install the new unit to nearly eliminate the necessity to burn off acid gas produced as a byproduct of refining crude oil into gasoline and other petroleum products. Doing so converts hydrogen sulfide into sulfur dioxide, a toxic chemical, which is released into the air. At present, the refinery sells the otherwise waste gas to the adjacent General Chemical plant for use in manufacturing sulfuric acid, an industrial chemical. Inability of General Chemical to accept the gas, because of equipment problems and other reasons, has resulted in several Sunoco 'flaring' incidents. Processing the gas into liquid sulfur will eliminate that arrangement.

However, a major complication has arisen. General Chemical, which has declared bankruptcy along with its parent company, has announced its intention to close the nearly 90-year-old plant in September. Sunoco has said it will take two years to build the sulfur-recovery unit after the necessary permits are received. Martini testified at the hearing on Mar. 13 that the company hopes to be able to shorten that timetable but cannot say for sure that it will be able to do so.

Pressed on what will happen with the gas during the time between the General Chemical closure and availability of the new unit, Martini said the refinery "will comply with our [present] permit" which allows 'flaring' discharges only in the event of emergencies and a limited number of other situations. Asked to explain how it will be able to comply, he replied, "I can't talk about that." The interim problem, strictly speaking, is not part of the process for considering the new permits.

Martini did testify earlier in the hearing that Sunoco will "do everything we can to shorten the time frame in which this thing can be built."

Delaforum previously reported that company officials have told public officials and civic leaders that it is considering up to six options for temporary measures to handle the situation, but evidently did not disclose what they are other than to say Sunoco has rejected the idea of subsidizing that part of the General Chemical operation. A spokesperson at Sunoco's corporate headquarters in Philadelphia responded to a Delaforum inquiry on the matter by citing a reaction statement issued at the time General Chemical announced its plans which expressed disappointment over the development but did not say what will happen next.

Noting that the technology Sunoco intends to use to recover sulfur is nearly 100 years old and is widely used in the industry -- which Martini confirmed -- Alan Muller, executive director of Green Delaware, said: "Even Motiva has been operating [that kind of] sulfur-recovery unit for decades. ... Can't we [sic] do better?"

Motiva, which has a refinery near Delaware City, has been involved with extensive environmental problems.

Leslie Savage, of the Delaware Audubon Society, questioned whether Sunoco's planned unit complies with the Clean Air Act's requirement to use the best technology that is available. "Release of 39 tons of sulfur dioxide is unacceptable," she said. That is the amount of that chemical that Sunoco asks the permit to allow, offset by elimination of 50.7 tons by the shutdown. of the boilers.

Martini testified that the new unit will be 99.5% efficient in capturing sulfur. It will have two streams, either one of which is capable of handling all the acid gas the refinery generates and neither of which will be used to process gas from other locations. He described the technology as "proven state-of-the-art."

When the new unit is operating, he added, the refinery "will comply with all state and federal regulations" governing environmental protection.

He said that Sunoco intends to sell the recovered sulfur, which will be transported from the refinery in heated tank trucks to keep it in liquid form, but said he did not know to whom nor whether that business will be profitable.

Evidently frustrated by several instances of Martini's inability or unwillingness to answer some of his technical and quasi-technical questions, Muller called for the natural resources department to either hold another public hearing or deny the permits on the grounds that "there are too many unanswered questions."

Department officials Dennis Brown and Paul Foster said the department's review of Sunoco's applications for the permits, along with subsequent responses to requests for additional information, found them 'administratively complete' and, therefore, acceptable at this stage of the process to justify granting the requested permits.

Hearing officer Rod Thompson denied Muller's earlier request to recess the hearing "until we can get someone [from the company] here who can answer the questions." Martini and Braun were the only persons to speak on behalf of Sunoco at the hearing.

After the hearing, George Lossť, president of the Claymont Coalition, told Delaforum that he is satisfied that Sunoco is addressing the 'flaring' problem in an acceptable manner. "If DNREC is satisfied [with the applications], the community is satisfied," he said. "The important thing is to get this done quickly." The coalition has spearheaded community response to the situation and, to a large degree, instigated the response which led to the agreement to build the sulfur-recovery unit. Lossť did not testify at the hearing.

The environmental representatives were, if anything, more critical of the environmental control department than they were of Sunoco.

Noting that a set of 'groundrules' distributed before the hearing ruled out discussing eight points -- including the General Chemical situation and what happens on the Pennsylvania side of the refinery, which is much bigger than the Delaware side -- Mary Ann McGonegal, of Common Cause of Delaware, said that rendered the hearing "a sham." She intimated that the exclusions were the result of the department's "collusion" with the company to enable it to make its case in the best possible light.

Thompson said the 'groundrules' were an interim arrangement decided upon by John Hughes,  environmental secretary in the governor's cabinet and executive head of the department, pending the drafting of new rules and procedures for conducting public hearings. Nevertheless, he was liberal in enforcing them at the hearing. For instance, he allowed testimony to the effect that the three boilers to be shut down in the Delaware side will be join four on the other side to be replaced by a new electricity plant to be built for Florida Power & Light on leased space on the Pennsylvania side of  the refinery. That plant will provide steam to the refinery but mainly is intended to enable the utility company to enter the commercial electricity market in this region.

There was no indication when Hughes will decide on whether to issue the permits to Sunoco nor what other federal or Pennsylvania permits are required before construction of the new unit can begin.

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