What Imperial Oil is calling an “internal issue” on Feb. 23 that erupted in flames visible 50 kilometres away has once again highlighted a need for better public communication, Port Huron officials say.
“We’ve seen burn-offs before, we’ve seen fire coming out of a couple of the stacks, but we’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Port Huron resident Lisa Mrowiec, who lives across the St. Clair River from the Sarnia refinery.
“I honestly just wanted to know if somebody knew what was happening, if I should pack up my four kids and go miles away.”
Refinery alarms sounded at 6:20 p.m. that day shortly after massive flames and black smoke erupted from three stacks at Imperial Oil.
The glow in the sky could be seen from as far away as Kettle Point and Walpole Island.
A nearby grass fire was also contained by company fire crews.
Imperial Oil spokesperson Jon Harding said the flames resulted from flaring needed to relieve gasses by burning them off. But he did not offer an explanation or a cause of the “internal issue.”
Harding said the company followed all the protocols and alerted the proper agencies, including Sarnia and Port Huron media outlets and the Chemical Valley Emergency Coordinating Organization.
He said the incident was classified as a precautionary “Code 8” resulting of an “internal abnormal occurrence” and that no action was required by CVECO responders.
A video recorded by Mrowiec that appeared to show the plant going up in flames was viewed 800,000 times, although it was later confirmed light reflecting off steam made it appear worse that it was.
“Nobody really knew what was happening,” Mrowiec said.
The director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in St. Clair County, Michigan said the danger may have been minimal but that was no reason to leave people in the dark.
While fear and speculation ran rampant on Facebook and Twitter on both sides of the border the department waited nearly three hours for an official explanation, Jeff Friedland said.
“No, there wasn’t any threat to St. Clair County, other than a whole lot of people looking at it from 400 yards away. Without information, they were scared. Then social media exploded,” he said.
“I’ve been trying to tell people for years that, hey, if you just shared information, then maybe the sky won’t fall, because there’s no need for the sky to fall. But if you don’t share it, people are going to assume the worst.”
Friedland said when a spill occurs in the river on the U.S. side the first call is to Michigan State Police. Police are responsible for communicating information to the Ontario government, who then notify Lambton County officials.
He said the process takes about 15 minutes, and even that’s not fast enough for an airborne release.
“How long does it take a vapour to go 400 yards?” he asked.
“We’ve got state-of-the art tools and we just need the right people to sit at the table. We’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and we can’t get the right people at the table.”
More modest flaring continued at Imperial Oil last week as Imperial restarted its shut-down units.
Dean Edwardson, of the industry-funded Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association, said all the protocols were followed.
“It’s regrettable though that perhaps there was an optical illusion that people were somewhat concerned, but the point being that at no time was the public in any imminent danger,” he said.
If people are concerned about something occurring in the Chemical Valley they can call 855-472-7642, Edwardson said.