BP plant evacuated after power outage

Around 200 people were evacuated from BP’s Whiting Refinery on Thursday, and nearby roads were closed after an apparent power outage caused an unplanned flaring of gasses at the facility. The company said that refinery staff are in the process of safely shutting the facility down.

“We have activated our emergency response team and evacuated refinery office buildings out of an abundance of caution,” BP spokesperson Christina Audisho wrote in a statement. “Local fire departments are assisting with the evacuation by closing nearby roads. The safety of refinery staff and the community are our highest priority.”

Plumes of fire and smoke spouting from the facility’s flare stacks were visible for miles, and photos of the scene quickly circulated on social media.

A city of Whiting spokesperson wrote that “this flaring is a safety release to burn off the extra product and is a normal process during an event.”

The city advised residents to avoid roadways that border the refinery. A city employee manning a roadblock on Indianapolis Boulevard told the Post-Tribune that only BP staff were being allowed through.

Steve Augustyn, a union laborer employed by BP contractor Amex Nooter, told the Post-Tribune that he and his coworkers saw the flaring begin from the facility’s south tank field around 12:30 p.m., shortly after they returned to work from lunch.

“It started getting a little bit worse than what it usually is,” he said. “Usually they have a blow off and that’s the end of it. There must have been something serious.”

Staff evacuated from the facility congregated in nearby Amoco Park in accordance with an established evacuation plan. Speaking with the Post-Tribune around 2 p.m., facility health safety and environment manager Rudy Gallegos said that only staff required to safely shut down the facility were left inside.

Thursday’s incident appears to mirror another mishap at the refinery that occurred last summer. In June, a severe storm caused a partial power outage at the refinery, resulting in an unplanned flaring of gasses and a release of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide — chemicals bearing the potential for negative health effects — into the air.

Odors bearing a resemblance to burned rubber started were reported in nearby communities including Munster around 2:30 p.m.

Gallegos said it was “too early to tell” how the scale of Thursday’s incident will compare to the gas release in June.

In January, the Whiting refinery experienced two separate tank leaks that were responsible for a noxious chemical odor experienced by many nearby residents in Indiana and Illinois. On Jan. 18, a storage tank at the refinery’s tank field began leaking dirty gas oil— possibly due to a crack in a valve caused by a recent cold snap— resulting in benzene and hydrogen sulfide vapors entering the atmosphere, according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). On Jan. 23, an equipment failure caused a separate tank to leak propane and hydrogen sulfide vapor. Both leaks were contained by refinery staff, the agency said.

The refinery’s air permit is currently up for renewal. IDEM, which is reviewing BP’s renewal request, will allow community members to weigh in on the permitting decision at 6 p.m. on Feb. 8 at the East Chicago High School.

adalton@chicagotribune.com