Sinclair flare up

Accident-prone refinery burdens Wyoming town

  • Charles Willgren, wikipedia

6 Sinclair's ranking among U.S. refineries for carcinogens released per barrel of oil produced, according to a 2008 report

5 Sinclair's ranking among 40 Wyoming facilities for total carcinogens released in 2008

10,262 Pounds of potentially deadly hydrogen sulfide gas released from the Sinclair refinery since 2009

92 Number of the 423 Sinclair residents signed up with CodeRed, the town's reverse 911 system to alert people in case of serious emergency

0 Words devoted to the Sinclair accidents on Wyoming environmental organization Web sites as of early April

1 Representatives of local environmental groups that have publicly expressed concern in coverage of the refinery's accidents in Wyoming's major newspaper

When Sinclair, Wyo., Mayor Phyllis McWhorter heard about the deadly refinery explosion in Anacortes, Wash., on April 2, which took six lives, she thought, "Holy me." Fortunately, Sinclair, a company town that hugs its namesake refinery, has avoided such a tragedy.

But only narrowly. Somehow, no one was hurt last May when a faulty roof split open a storage tank, spilling 2.73 million gallons of ignitable gasoline-grade fuel. It was the worst accident at the refinery last year, but not the only one. Since the start of 2009, 17 spills or toxic gas releases have been reported.

A certain level of risk is a fact of life in Sinclair. Although the refinery has long been one of the state's major polluters, regularly spewing hazardous air pollutants and carcinogens, the oil company and local residents have never seemed anxious to do anything about it. In 10 years in local government, McWhorter rarely fielded complaints about the refinery. Even environmental groups appear more concerned nowadays about the impact of wind farms on sage grouse.

The accidents of '09 did, however, draw unprecedented attention to the refinery. The local newspaper laid into the company for taking nine days to acknowledge the May fuel spill, defying its own policy of not criticizing individual businesses. And a list of that year's accidents made the front page of the Casper Star-Tribune in December.

For Barbara Parsons, the refinery's primary watchdog, even these small signs of unrest were encouraging. Parsons has badgered Wyoming to hold the refinery to more strict environmental standards since the '80s. "It's been my issue for so long," she says. But in a county bankrolled by oil and gas, getting people to pay attention has been an uphill battle.

"There just aren't that many environmentalists," she says.

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