PAULSBORO — Faithful patrons of The Diner on West Broad Street here wondered aloud of the petro stench that had emanated Thursday from the Paulsboro Refinery.
Well before they’d heard the latest on the crude oil spill, skepticism filtered through. After all, even under earlier ownership, the plant had reminded locals of just what is in their back yard.
Memories of some past incidents remain, as Diner owner Dale McIntyre would relate.
As for the latest incident, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) spokesman Larry Hajna on Friday said his agency still doesn’t think Thursday’s leak will bring real health risks to area residents.
Hajna also said about 6.3 million gallons of crude oil – not 6.6 million, as previously estimated – had spilled into a containment berm built to hold much more.
The spill came from one of the refinery’s oil containers, officials had said.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno on Friday met with NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin and others at the refinery to discuss the incident.
“There were scattered reports of people with eye irritation … or respiratory irritation,” Hajna said, while maintaining officials don’t expect major concerns.
“The county has gotten maybe about 50 calls, the NJDEP has gotten a few calls, but nothing widespread.
“I was at the site this morning, and I didn’t smell anything myself,” Hajna said.
He added odors could resurface, as recent rain may have broken up the foam crews had been applying to the oil, but workers would continue to pour on the foam.
Hajna explained the NJDEP isn’t concerned the oil will harm nearby waterways orthe municipal water supply. Workers are pumping the oil to tanks quickly enough to help prevent problems, he said.
“The impact to the groundwater would be very minimal,” Hajna stressed. “It’s a refinery, so there’s already some impact.”
But there are also wells to capture substances. And incidents like Thursday’s are very rare, Hajna said.
The refinery tank holds about 286,000 barrels – 12 million gallons – of oil, and the containment area is built to hold 377,000 barrels.
Hajna said crews are also monitoring the air to ensure safety. County, state and federal officials are taking part in monitoring and cleanup efforts.
That cleanup may take several days to complete, Hajna added.
Despite reassurances, at least some residents have their doubts. McIntyre said they’d come earlier for their normal coffee and commentary.
“There was lots and lots of chatter,” she recalled. “People were kind of giggling at (the NJDEP) statement that even at low concentrations the oil could emit a major odor, and have a low risk.”
But roughly six and a half million gallons? That’s quite a bit of oil, patrons said, all the while questioning whether the health risk was truly so low.
One group had recalled a gathering over Java at the old local Dutch Inn years ago, one interrupted by a similar incident, McIntyre said.
“They remembered they were having coffee together, and they smelled the same odor,” she said. “They had to go home and get their children and pets out for a while.”
While such incidents are far from daily, area residents can recall several.
In October 2001, when the Paulsboro Refinery was owned by Valero, about 150 pounds of hydrogen sulfide leaked from the site.
In heavy concentrations, hydrogen sulfide can cause suffocation. And while that didn’t happen in 2001, the incident did cause a scare.
Winds were blowing that day toward neighboring Greenwich Township. There, at Broad Street Elementary School, all children and staff were taken to the gymnasium, and the doors and windows were sealed with duct tape and plastic.
In June 2011, about 600 pounds of hydrogen sulfide was released from the refinery, which by then was owned by PBF Energy.
Students were evacuated from Paulsboro High School due to the overwhelming rotten egg stench, and several students became at least briefly ill.
Hajna at that time said the exposure was not believed to be a real health threat, although an NJDEP investigation and monitoring followed.
As for the oil spill, it wasn’t immediately clear what penalties may be imposed on PBF or the Paulsboro Refinery in particular.
But New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said the proper penalty could amount “in the millions of dollars … It could be even higher than that.”
Tittel added, however, that lately, enforcement in such matters has been lax. He cited an NJDEP agreement with PBF a year ago, lowering “a proposed $2.3 million air pollution fine to just $796,000, a $1.5 million reduction from the level recommended by enforcement staff.”
Tittel argued that such variation from a recommended penalty encourages companies to risk taking lower fines rather than buckling down on environmentally dangerous practices.