Alon USA Relies on SafeRack for Unmatched Responsiveness
Following an explosion that completely shut down Alon USA's Big Spring Refinery the first order of business was simple--respond, restart and rebuild
Most people don’t have much use for Mondays, and when Randy Hillman reflects back on the events of Monday, Feb. 18, 2008, it will be with even more disdain than usual for everyone’s least favorite day of the week.
You see, Hillman is the Manager of Pipeline and Terminal Operations at Alon USA’s Big Spring Refinery in Big Spring, TX, and it was on the morning of Monday, Feb. 18, 2008, at exactly 8:15 a.m.—that’s when all of the refinery’s clocks stopped—that a propylene leak set off an explosion that rocked the refinery and the town of Big Spring, which is located about 290 miles west of Dallas. In all, the blast sent four employees to the hospital (none were seriously hurt), completely shut down operations at the 70,000 barrel-per-day facility, damaged several buildings within the facility itself, broke out windows for miles, rattled nearby houses, and created a plume of black smoke from the ensuing fire that could be seen up to 40 miles away.
“When the incident happened on Feb. 18, we were totally out of business,” explained Hillman. “Not only from the standpoint of the entire refinery being shut down, but all of the process units were out of service and we didn’t have an office. We lost everything. Our first order of business, after making sure we took care of the injured and that the refinery was safe, was to come up with a plan to restart and rebuild, which we did in short order.”
To make matters even worse, that day crude-oil futures closed above $100 a barrel for the first time in history, adding a potentially devastating economic cloud to the black cloud of smoke that was lingering over the refinery. So, after the final fire was extinguished at approximately 6:15 p.m. that evening, Hillman and a team of co-workers at the refinery cobbled together an aggressive reconstruction plan since Alon USA still had supply contracts that needed to be filled and future supply would need to be guaranteed.
The reconstruction plan featured a timeline that had the refinery running to at least half of its capacity within 35 days, but that Herculean task would take lots of cooperation and many long days and nights. Following a disaster of this magnitude, there are many key areas that have to be rebuilt or shored up before operations can resume. One of the most critical, according to Hillman, in the effort to begin processing crude again was the construction of a new pipe rack that would facilitate the flow of crude to the crude unit and finished products back out again.
However, before any of this could be done, a way to remove the gas oil from the refining process was needed since the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking unit was knocked out of service by the explosion. Gas oil is a by-product from the crude unit that is used in the process of the catalytic cracking unit.
“After rebuilding the pipe rack, the next critical project was dealing with the gas oil output,” said Hillman. “We had no place to go with our gas oil stream because our cat cracker was down; this area was ground zero and the possible source of the explosion. We could come up to half rate (35,000 bpd) if we had a home for the gas oil.”
Normal operations would see the produced gas oil removed by processing it through the cat cracker, but with that unit not operational, the only solution was to transfer the gas oil to railcars and sell it to a third party. The challenge inherent in this plan was constructing a loading rack and gangway system that would enable the gas oil to be loaded onto the railcars. That’s when Hillman turned to SafeRack, LLC, Sumter, SC.
“Two days after the incident, I contacted Matt Heil at SafeRack to explain the situation,” said Hillman. “In order to make the removal of the gas oil happen, we needed to have 16 new rail-loading spots. As soon as I called Matt, he was here that same day. He took measurements and gave us an estimate within a few days. I immediately gave him the go-ahead and he started the process of ordering the equipment we needed for the rail rack.”
“When I got to the refinery that night, a group of us went out to look at the rack that needed to be rebuilt and determined that it was definitely doable,” said Heil, the area managerfor SafeRack. “After being there for two-and-a-half hours we already had a game plan.”
Working hand-in-hand with Emco Wheaton, which would be supplying the loading arms for the project, SafeRack “generated the approval drawings pretty quickly—within 24 hours,” according to Heil. For this project, SafeRack, which is the leading provider of stronger, safer and easier-to-handle truck and railcar loading-rack and fall-protection equipment for the petroleum, biofuel, specialized chemical, food/pharmaceutical, cement and other industries, would be providing gangways that would help refinery employees complete the transfer of the gas oil (and other finished products) from the cat cracker to the waiting railcars.
Another unique part of this operation was that with the back-office infrastructure at Big Spring knocked out by the incident, SafeRack and Emco Wheaton had to greenlight the project with nothing but verbal approvals from Hillman.
“A part of the process, that was very important from our standpoint, was that SafeRack and Emco Wheaton acted on verbal approval,” said Hillman. “That helped us a whole lot since we didn’t have computers to generate purchase orders. That didn’t stop them and they kept the process going because they knew time was of the essence to us.”
In order to expedite the rebuilding process, SafeRack began shipping the gangway equipment as it was manufactured, instead of waiting until the entire order was completed.
“I actually requested this so we could start putting them in as quickly as possible,” said Hillman. “In a worst-case scenario, at least we would have half the equipment installed and we would be able to load half the product out. SafeRack was willing to work with us and I appreciated that so we could get back up and running as quickly as possible.”
During the height of the reconstruction process, the refinery—which typically employs 169 people—was a beehive of activity with as many as 1,800 contractors on hand day and night in an effort to get the facility back in operation.
“We had a local contractor, S & S Construction, that was a key contributor throughout the entire rebuild,” said Hillman. “They just jumped in and made it happen. They were hands-on. In fact, the two gentlemen that own the company were on site every day to make sure everything was running smooth. They didn’t have to, but they were willing to work a 24-hour shift.”
This commitment to the project, which was exhibited by everyone involved in the reconstruction, meant that by April 7, exactly seven weeks after the incident (making it a rare good Monday), the start-up and continuous operation of the refinery in a 35,000-bpd hydroskimming mode was announced by Alon USA. Units that came back online at that time were the crude unit, reformer unit, distillate hydrotreater and jet-fuel hydrotreater, giving the refinery the ability to produce gasoline, diesel and asphalt.
But while the refinery was able to operate at half-capacity, work continued to bring it back to full operation. Another area that needed the assistance of SafeRack was in asphalt production, which had resumed on April 7.
“About 25 days after the gas oil loading rack was complete I called Matt and said, ‘We have another one. We have to build this asphalt loading rack right now. How quick can you get me an asphalt loading rack, drawings, etc.?’” said Hillman. “We started the process all over again.”
“The equipment has been operating great,” said Bill Atchley, Senior Asphalt Coordinator and OM&S Superintendent for Alon USA. “We haven’t had a bit of a problem with the loading arms or tracking of the gangways. For this project, we hired four new railcar loaders. When they showed up, they didn’t have a clue what was going on, but they learned within a matter of a few hours how to operate the racks and how to set them.”
When combating and then recovering from a disaster such as the Big Spring incident, response time is of the utmost importance, as in the response from local firefighting and emergency rescue units—the departments from the towns of Big Spring, Howard County, Snyder, Odessa, Midland, and Colorado City all responded to the call—the response from facility management when creating a reconstruction plan and the response from the companies charged with manufacturing and supplying the products necessary for reconstruction.
While no one ever wishes for a disaster like this to happen, the response and cooperation exhibited by all involved at Big Spring can be used as a textbook example for dealing with future catastrophes of this magnitude.
“I have not been part of a project where a supplier is so willing to work with you and do it at such a rapid pace,” said Hillman. “SafeRack responded to our situation tremendously. They jumped through hoops to make it happen. Everything has worked very well and the SafeRack equipment has been great.”
Tom Semiklose is Vice President for SafeRack, LLC, a company committed to providing stronger, safer and easier-to-handle truck and railcar loading-rack and fall-protection equipment. Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (866) 761-7225. Headquartered in Sumter, SC, SafeRack has more than 200 years of combined experience in offering high-quality equipment that has been customized for each customer’s unique loading applications. For more information on Fall Protection, Safety Cage or Gangway products from SafeRack, LLC, Sumter, SC, please contact us at (866) 761-7225 or go to www.saferack.com.