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Ramping Up Rapid Reconstruction

Alon USA's Big Spring Refinery suffered an explosion that completely shut it down; the first order of business was simple?respond, restart and rebuild.

Alon USA's Big Spring Refinery suffered an explosion that completely shut it down; 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 on the events of Monday, February 18, 2008, it will be with even more disdain than usual for everyone's least favorite weekday. You see, Hillman is the manager of pipeline and terminal operations at Alon USA's refinery in Big Spring, TX, and it was on the morning of Monday, February 18, 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.

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 (BPD) 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 for up to 40 miles. "When the incident happened, we were totally out of business," explains 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 the refinery was safe, was to come up with a plan to restart and rebuild."

The Clock Is Ticking

To make matters even worse, that day crude oil futures had closed above $100 a barrel for the first time in history, adding a potentially devastating economic cloud to the smoke that lingered over the refinery. So, after the final fire was extinguished at approximately 6:15 p.m., Hillman and a team of co-workers cobbled together an aggressive reconstruction plan; Alon USA still needed to fill supply contracts, while additionally guaranteeing future supply. The reconstruction plan featured a timeline that had the refinery running 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 must be shored up before operations can resume. According to Hillman, one of the most critical tasks 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. Before any of this could be done, however, the company needed a way to remove the gas oil from the refining process 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, which is then used in the catalytic cracking unit process. "After rebuilding the pipe rack, the next critical project was dealing with gas oil output," says 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."

Lending A Hand

During normal operations, the catalytic cracker would process gas oil in order to remove it, but with that unit rendered inoperable, 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. That's when Hillman turned to SafeRack LLC, a truck and railcar loading-rack and fall-protection equipment provider for the petroleum, biofuel, specialized chemical, food, pharmaceutical and other industries. "I contacted Matt Heil at SafeRack two days after the incident to explain the situation," indicates Hillman. "In order to make the removal of the gas oil happen, we needed to have 16 new rail-loading spots. Heil was here the same day I called; he took measurements and gave us an estimate within days. I immediately gave him the go-ahead, and he started ordering the rail rack equipment" right away. "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," according to Heil, SafeRack area manager. "After being there two-and-a-half hours, we already had a game plan." Working hand-in-hand with Emco Wheaton, the project loading arm supplier, SafeRack "generated approval drawings within 24 hours." SafeRack was to provide the gangways to help refinery employees complete the gas oil (and other finished products) transfer from the catalytic cracker to awaiting railcars. Another unique part of this operation was that with the back-office infrastructure at Big Spring being knocked out by the incident, SafeRack and Emco Wheaton had to green-light the project with nothing but verbal approvals from Hillman. "SafeRack and Emco Wheaton acting on verbal approval was important from our standpoint," Hillman admits. "It helped us a 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." 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," points out Hillman. "In a worst-case scenario, at least we would have half the equipment installed and 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."

Back In Action

The commitment everyone exhibited to the project meant that by April 7, exactly seven weeks after the incident (making it one of those rare good Mondays), Alon USA could announce the startup and continuous operation of the refinery in a 35,000-BPD hydroskimming mode. The units that came back online by that time were the crude unit, reformer unit, distillate hydrotreater and jet-fuel hydrotreater, thus permitting the refinery to produce gasoline, diesel and asphalt. But while the refinery could operate at half-capacity, work continued to bring it back to full operation. Another area that needed SafeRack's assistance, however, was asphalt production, which resumed April 7. "About 25 days after the gas oil-loading rack was complete, I called Heil to say, ‘We have to build this asphalt-loading rack right now. How quick can you get me an asphalt-loading rack, drawings, etc.?'" Hillm we started the process all over." "The equipment has been great," according to Bill Atchley, Alon USA senior asphalt coordinator, and operation, maintenance and support superintendent. "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 and set the racks." When combating and recovering from a disaster such as this, as in the response from local firefighting and emergency rescue units—like those from the towns of Big Spring, Odessa and Midland, the cities of Snyder and Colorado City, as well as Howard County, all of which responded to the call—facility management response time in creating a reconstruction plan, along with the companies charged with supplying the products necessary for reconstruction, is of the utmost importance. While no one wishes for a disaster like this, the response and cooperation displayed 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 in which a supplier is so willing to work with you and do it at such a rapid pace," Hillman boasts. "SafeRack responded to our situation tremendously. They jumped through hoops to make it happen. Everything worked well and the SafeRack equipment is great."
Tom Semiklose is vice president of SafeRack LLC, a loading-rack and fall-protection equipment provider. For more information, call Semiklose at 866.761.7225, e-mail him at [email protected] or visit"I have not been part of a project in which a supplier is so wiling to work with you and do it at such a rapid pace. SafeRack jumped through hoops to make it happen." – Randy Hillman, Alon USA Pipeline and Terminal Operations Manager