Union faults Sunoco on Irene preparations

Wed Aug 31, 2011 4:02pm EDT

Related Topics

* Sunoco says took necessary preparations for Irene

* Two Sunoco refineries operating at reduced rates

* Sources say one crude unit shut due to flooding

HOUSTON, Aug 31 (Reuters) - The United Steelworkers union said on Wednesday Sunoco Inc SUN.N gambled with the safety of refinery workers and its 335,000 barrel per day (bpd) Philadelphia refinery by operating through Hurricane Irene without back-up equipment.

"Sunoco did less to protect its refining assets than the average homeowner did to protect his or her home," said Jim Savage, president of USW Local 10-1, which represents more than 600 hourly workers at the Philadelphia refinery, in a statement.

"The company rolled the dice despite the very real possibility of there being power outages, flooding and equipment breakdowns during the storm," Savage said. "Luckily, no one got hurt."

Irene hit the eastern seaboard at the weekend as a tropical storm but heavy rains and a storm surge caused massive flooding.

As of Wednesday morning, Sunoco's Philadelphia and 178,000 bpd Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, refineries were operating at reduced rates, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Sources familiar with refinery operations told Reuters on Monday that one of the Philadelphia refinery's crude distillation units was shut by flooding from the hurricane. Another crude unit had been shut by a fire the previous week.

Sunoco has said both refineries were operating at reduced rates after Irene, but declined to discuss the status of specific units.

Company spokesman Thomas Golembeski said Sunoco followed its plans to ready the refinery for Irene, which brought heavy rain to Philadelphia on Sunday.

"Both the refinery leadership team and employees worked diligently to make sure we were prepared for the effects of Hurricane Irene," Golembeski said. "We took all appropriate precautions to protect our people, our neighbors, the environment, and our assets."

Savage said Sunoco could have idled the refinery or brought in extensive back-up equipment as did other U.S. East Coast east refiners.

"Sunoco did neither in preparation for the storm," he said. "The company dodged a bullet this time around. We might not be so lucky when the next hurricane hits the East Coast."

ConocoPhillips (COP.N) shut its 238,000 bpd Bayway refinery in Linden, New Jersey, and PBF Energy had back-up power generators, air compressors and steam production equipment at its 182,200 bpd Delaware City, Delaware refinery, the union said. PBF also put in sandbag berms to prevent flooding.

Sunoco did make preparations for power and equipment failures, Golembeski said.

"We took into consideration the design limitations of our equipment, as well as the expected intensity of the storm, when making our decisions," he said. "We had extra resources on hand and worked closely with our electric utility provider to ensure safe operations." (Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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