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BP Whiting back on line after Thursday power outage

Power has been restored and “operations have been stabilized” at BP’s Whiting refinery, the company told city officials on Friday. The announcement came the day after a power outage and unplanned gas flaring that resulted in the facility being evacuated.

In an earlier statement to the city on Thursday evening, a BP spokesperson wrote that office staff who had been evacuated that afternoon had been allowed back inside the facility.

In the wake of the incident, dozens of nearby residents took to social media to complain of a strong chemical odor. One Hammond resident wrote in an email to the Post-Tribune that she first noticed the odor around 3 p.m.

“While on a Zoom call for work, I felt so dizzy I couldn’t focus on my screen,” she wrote. “I had to excuse myself, ran to close the window, and put on an N95 mask.”

The power outage, which occurred in the early afternoon, was localized to the refinery. BP maintains its own electric supply separate from the power grid operated by the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, the utility clarified in a statement on Thursday. Gas flares are used at oil refineries to depressurize equipment by burning excess gas.

Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) spokesman Barry Sneed wrote in a statement that the cause of the power outage, as well as the composition and scale of the gas release are not yet known.

“However,” he wrote, “air monitoring is being conducted around the facility, and levels are currently meeting national ambient air quality standards.”

BP added that “air monitoring is underway and no elevated readings have been recorded,” and “all refinery personnel are accounted for and no injuries have been reported.” Roadways bordering the refinery that were closed by local authorities shortly after the power outage occurred have since been reopened.

A similar incident occurred at the refinery last June, when severe weather caused a partial power outage at the refinery, resulting in an unplanned flaring of gasses and a release of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide into the air. Both chemicals are toxic to humans. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control notes that hydrogen sulfide is known to cause eye, nose and throat irritation even at low concentrations.

Whiting Mayor Steve Spebar told the Post-Tribune that compared to the June incident, Thursday’s events represented a “much larger concern, with the whole refinery not having power.”

“And that’s why surrounding areas had to be protected from traffic, et. cetera,” he said.

In January, the Whiting refinery experienced two separate tank leaks that spread a strong chemical odor across Northwest Indiana and nearby communities in Illinois, one on Jan. 18 and another on Jan. 23. The leaks resulted in a release of benzene and hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere, according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM).

IDEM staff were among the first responders to Thursday’s power outage at the refinery. An agency spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about the incident.

The refinery’s air permit is currently up for renewal. IDEM, which is reviewing BP’s renewal request, will allow community members to weigh in on the permitting decision at 6 p.m. on Feb. 8 at the East Chicago High School.

Last May, BP settled a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency which claimed that the company’s Whiting refinery violated the Clean Air Act by emitting higher quantities of air and water pollutants than are allowed. BP agreed to pay $40 million in fines and to install $197 million in pollution-prevention measures at the site.

A company spokesperson did not answer follow-up questions.

adalton@chicagotribune.com