Refinery explosion claims a life; investigation underway

newsPASCAGOULA — Authorities are investigating the cause of an explosion and fire at a southern Mississippi refinery Friday that killed one worker.

An operator at the Cracking II Processing Unit died after something detonated inside a furnace and sparked a fire, Chevron Mississippi general manager Tom Kovar said. The operators were outside the furnace at the time and the fire was contained to a small area.

He identified the victim as Tonya Graddy, who had worked as an operator at Chevron for five years. Graddy was among about a dozen workers in the area when the explosion happened, Kovar said, but there were no other injuries.

Jackson County Coroner Vicki Broadus said Graddy was from Semmes, Ala. She was about 50 years old.

The cracking area of the refinery is the first step in breaking down crude oil into various components so it can become gasoline or coke. It’s a hot process and furnaces are involved. The refinery is located east of Pascagoula and runs round the clock.

“We’re trying to piece together all the facts and data now,” he said. “The most important thing now is that we keep the refinery running securely and deal with the investigation … to get to the root cause of the event,” Kovar said.

Crews secured the unit and isolated the fire to keep it from spreading, and the refinery kept running, he said.

“There was no danger to the community,” he said.

A company statement said the area was secured and safe for investigators and other personnel.

“We have begun the process of investigation this incident and are cooperating with appropriate regulatory agencies,” the statement said.

Chevron said the last fatality at the plant was in 2003.

“It’s a very, very busy refinery and we’re very proud of our safety record,” Kovar said.

Kovar said a 50th anniversary celebration of the plant’s opening, planned for this weekend, has been cancelled.

About 30 firefighters and police officers responded to the fire. Many of them remained at the site late Friday.

The Pascagoula facility is Chevron’s largest wholly owned refinery. It has a workforce of 1,610 and processes up to 330,000 barrels per day of crude oil to produce gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and other products.

In 2009, Chevron’s Pascagoula refinery was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 11 violations relating to improper handling of hazardous chemicals. Two of those violations were dismissed in an informal settlement process and Chevron ended up paying a $19,125 fine, online records show. OSHA also fined Chevron $1,625 for bad lighting that year.

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