Hydrogen Cyanide Leak at Delaware City Oil Refinery Has Been Fixed

Yesterday’s Dover Post says the leak has been fixed at the Delaware City Refinery, and there is no longer any release of hydrogen cyanide:

“Based on an analysis of the emissions, DNREC does not consider there to be a threat to public health,” said Michael Globetti, a spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “Even at its source within the refinery, the HCN now being released is exponentially less than the permissible threshold for exposure allowed under federal law.”

“The highest concentration of HCN was projected to occur approximately three-fourths of a mile from the source at a concentration of 3 parts per billion,” Globetti said. “By comparison, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s permissible exposure level to HCN without adverse effects is 10 parts per million.”

PBF Energy spokesperson Mike Gayda said that a low level concentration of about 10 parts per million was emitted into the air. He compared this to a drop of soy sauce in a pot of water.

Soy sauce? This is not soy sauce, it’s a deadly toxin. If you take a look at this table from the CDC’s website, you’ll see that while yes, exposure of 10 parts per million might be permissible, continuous exposure to that much becomes unpleasant pretty quickly:

Acute Exposure Guidelines
5 min 10 min 30 min 1 hr 4 hr 8 hr
(discomfort, non-disabling) – mg/m3
Not established/ determined 2.5 ppm 2.5 ppm 2.0 ppm 1.3 ppm 1.0 ppm
(irreversible or other serious, long-lasting effects or impaired ability to escape) – mg/m3
Not established/ determined 17 ppm 10 ppm 7.1 ppm 3.5 ppm 2.5 ppm
(life-threatening effects or death) – mg/m3
Not established/ determined 27 ppm 21 ppm 15 ppm 8.6 ppm 6.6 ppm

Note that DNREC said the highest concentration was “projected” to occur at a point 3/4 mile away from the source. “Projected” means they probably ran a computer model to simulate the leak, they didn’t take any measurements of the actual concentration of hydrogen cyanide in the air around the refinery. Was there a school close to that point? A playground? A church? Lots of what if’s, and not very timely disclosure to your neighbors.

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Just for clarification purposes, there was a release of 524 pounds of sulfur dioxide reported on 10/26 from the north flare at the Delaware City Refinery. It appeared to be a one time release and there have been no subsequent reports from the refinery since that date.

Update on the Delaware City Refinery

In an updated story from the Middletown Transcript from October 24, Michael Gayda, a spokesman for PBF energy, the company that owns the refinery reports that ‘there is no “high level” risk and that they are working to have the problem fixed by the end of the month.’

What is the definition of “high risk”?

The story also reports that the Delaware City refinery reopened October 7 after being closed for nearly two years. The first report of hydrogen cyanide being released from the facility was received by the National Response Center on October 2, and has been reported every day since then.

Curious how the refinery was permitted to open 5 days after they reported that a boiler on the FCC unit blew a hole in the line causing a release of hydrogen cyanide and that the unit had been shut down for repair?

Release of Hydrogen Cyanide Still On-Going at Delaware City Refinery

We still don’t know exactly the cause of the release of 200 pounds of Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) per day at the Delaware City Refinery. The only information we get through our SkyTruth Alerts system is what they report to the NRC, and yesterday’s report said:


A release of this compound is not very common, according to our research. We went back 10 years through the our alerts database looking for reports of releases of 100 pounds or more of Hydrogen Cyanide. Not counting the daily release of 200 pounds from the Delaware City Refinery this month, we found only 48 other incidents reported to the NRC over the entire 10 year period. Obviously, this is NOT a common occurrence. 

How long will this last? How dangerous is this chemical release to the surrounding communities? With regard to health effects, according to this from the CDC’s Medical Management Guidelines for Hydrogen Cyanide,

  • Hydrogen cyanide is highly toxic by all routes of exposure and may cause abrupt onset of profound CNS, cardiovascular, and respiratory effects, leading to death within minutes.
  • Exposure to lower concentrations of hydrogen cyanide may produce eye irritation, headache, confusion, nausea, and vomiting followed in some cases by coma and death.
  • Hydrogen cyanide acts as a cellular asphyxiant. By binding to mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase, it prevents the utilization of oxygen in cellular metabolism. The CNS and myocardium are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of cyanide.

To be notified of additional reports at this location, you can follow this incident 3 ways:

Alberta’s Tar Sands: In-Situ Extraction Converted to Mining?

Well, no. Our friends at The Pembina Institute who study tar sands development and other energy issues, inform us that what we observed on recent imagery does not show the footprint of in-situ extraction.  It does show the intense landscape fragmentation caused by the delineation wells and seismic survey lines that are part of the exploration process, to evaluate the quality and extent of tar sands deposits prior to mining.  According to Pembina, all of the disruption associated with this exploration activity occurs BEFORE any environmental assessment is submitted. That seems bassackwards…

2008 Google Earth imagery showing intense footprint of in-situ bitumen extraction from tar sands deposits near Cold Lake, Alberta.

Meanwhile, here is a shot of an in-situ extraction project (using the SAGD process, Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage), located about 15 miles northwest of Cold Lake, Alberta.  Best we can tell this is part of Shell’s Orion project.  The well sites are about 5 acres in size and they are spaced very closely together.  The result is a pretty heavy surface footprint on the landscape, similar to what we see with natural gas drilling and fracking in places like western Wyoming’s Jonah and Pinedale Anticline fields.

Reaction to John’s presentation at LightHawk

Here are some comments we received after our presentation at LightHawk’s annual Fly-In held in Boise, ID the weekend of October 7-9.

“Thanks so much for your great presentation at the LightHawk fly-in—definitely one of the most compelling I’ve seen in a long time, and a great antidote to the powerlessness one can sometimes feel.”

“I want you to know I thought your presentation at the LightHawk meeting was superb!”

“Thank you for your presence at LightHawk’s Fly-In. Your presentation (in both content and style) was fantastic! I came away with a far better appreciation of the power of satellite imagery for conservation outcomes and have great respect for the accountability work you are doing. I look forward to seeing how LH & SkyTruth might work closely in the future!”

“I really enjoyed your presentation and meeting you again after 10 years. Your presentation was terrific. You provide a great service on behalf of the health of this planet. Bullshit Buster Extraordinaire! Maybe you should wear a cape.”

Very kind words to hear, thanks folks!