A malfunction with a fluid catalytic cracker unit at an oil refinery in Burnaby, British Columbia, during the early morning of January 21, led to a strong chemical smoke odour that blanketed the northern part of the Metro Vancouver region.
The chemical odour led more than 100 and Burnaby residents to file odour complaints with the region, which eventually issued an air quality bulletin suggesting to move indoors to reduce exposure to the odour.
“Metro Vancouver is responsible for issuing air emissions permits within the region, and assessing whether our requirements and bylaws are being met,” regional officials announced in a statement. “Parkland Refining holds a valid air quality permit with Metro Vancouver, and officers are assessing compliance with that permit, which will be an ongoing process.”
Burnaby Fire crews established an operational perimeter between the facility owned by Parkland Refining Ltd. and the adjacent neighbourhood. The crews set up portable air quality monitoring to ensure safety, and at no time did the monitors indicate a risk to residents, said local officials.
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WorkSafeBC categorized the incident as a “major release of a hazardous substance” due to several Parkland employees seeking first aid treatment due to the strong-smelling smoke. None were hospitalized.
Metro Vancouver released information noting that it monitors three air contaminants emitted from the refinery: particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide increased, officials said, but didn’t exceed Metro Vancouver’s objectives.
In a public statement following the incident, Parkland officials announced that extreme cold weather may have led to the refinery unit’s malfunction. The company said it would be enlisting third-party air monitoring to supplement the systems already in place.
Burnaby Mayor, Mike Hurley, issued a public statement about the refinery incident after speaking with Parkland officials. He noted that the temperature in the fluid catalytic cracker unit dropped to the point that it was not able to burn off some components, emitting burnt sulphur dioxide into the air. The unit converts heavy crude oil feedstock into lighter petroleum products.
Under normal conditions, Mayor Hurley said the unit heats materials to a high temperature, “creating a reaction.” This reaction, he explained, separates the hydrocarbon product into the various desired components.
Production at the refinery has stopped while Parkland conducts its annual maintenance over the next few weeks. The refinery has been working with Metro Vancouver on a plan to bring the damaged unit back into operation, which includes burning off hydrocarbon product that had solidified, a process that would create some increased odour, flaring, and visible smoke.
For emergencies where there is imminent danger and residents must take action, Burnaby uses an emergency notification system called Alertable. Local officials, however, are currently reviewing options around earlier notification about incidents such as the one that occurred at Parkland.
Related Professional Development Course
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