Mysterious smoke worries Ponca City residents after it sends 7 to the hospital

PONCA CITY, Okla. - A cloud of smoke on Tuesday near the Phillips Refinery has some Ponca residents worried.

"First I thought it was something burning 'cause I saw a bunch of smoke but then I saw a cloud. The cloud was pretty dark," Ponca City resident, Patricia Hoffman talking about a large smoke cloud in the street between the Phillips 66 refinery and her house.

One resident called police after seeing the smoke:

"I'm over here at McFadden and Palm and the whole neighborhood is filled with smoke. It smells tar-y. Like tar or something burning. I don't know whether it's Conoco or- I mean, the smoke is so thick in here you can't hardly see to, you know, the other side of the street," said Ponca City resident, Gary Winter.

"Big cloud of smoke about 12:30, 1 o'clock, it did smell really toxic though," said Monique Hamilton, Ponca City resident.

Phillips 66  released this statement:

"At approximately 1:00 p.m. local time, a unit upset occurred at the Phillips 66 Ponca City Refinery, located at 1000 S. Pine Street, resulting in a brief release of catalyst which is used in the refining process. After the release, seven individuals from the community sought medical attention at a local emergency room and have since been released. Our emergency response team immediately responded to the incident. No external readings have been detected by monitoring equipment at our fenceline or adjacent community. The safety of our community, the environment, and our people are of the utmost importance to Phillips 66, and these priorities will guide our efforts as we investigate the cause of this incident. For residents' awareness, our community hotline is (580) 767-7130."

We talked to one woman who didn’t want to go on camera. She was with 6 kids at the splash pad across from the refinery when she saw the cloud of smoke.

She said she immediately got a sore throat and that some of the children complained of throat and eye irritation.

She says they went to the Alliance Health Center in Ponca City where they initially went inside the emergency room but then were all taken outside where first responders treated them.

Alliance Health released this statement,

"The Emergency Department at AllianceHealth Ponca City received seven patients yesterday that had been exposed to a catalyst released by Phillips 66 Refinery. All patients were treated and discharged in good condition. There were no acute health hazards associated with the catalyst."

CEO of AllianceHealth Ponca City, Chris Mendoza went on to say:

"As a team at AllianceHealth Ponca City, we work closely with our first responders and Emergency Management Services to be prepared for emergent situations. I would like to thank Phillips 66 and our local EMS for their quick response to the situation. I am extremely proud of our Emergency Department and staff for their teamwork and outstanding care for our patients.”

On Wednesday, the woman treated in the parking lot says she still has symptoms.

She told News 4 she spoke with several people associated with Phillips 66 and no one would tell her exactly what that catalyst was.

"It makes me kinda worried to live that close and that kinda worries me because my grandkids wanna come visit me or something it might be dangerous for them," said Patricia Hoffman.

News 4 talked to a representative from the DEQ on Wednesday. She says no specific materials were mentioned in the initial report Phillips 66 filed.

On Thursday, the DEQ released the following statement:

"DEQ has been on site at the refinery and in contact with Phillips 66 personnel.  Philips 66 did file an immediate notice with DEQ and met the requirements for that notice.  It is our understanding that there was a release of catalyst due to an unplanned shutdown of a unit.  DEQ will investigate the matter further and is currently evaluating the information in the Catalyst Fact Sheet provided by Philips 66 to determine possible next steps."

We asked the Phillips spokesperson about the catalyst that was released. On Thursday, the company sent News 4 the following details:

"At approximately 1:00 p.m. local time Tues., July 16, 2019, the Phillips 66 Ponca City Refinery’s Fluid Catalytic Cracking (FCC) unit experienced an upset, resulting in a brief release of FCC catalyst into the air for approximately 20 minutes. All appropriate regulatory notifications were made following the incident.

FCC catalyst, which helps convert crude oil to finished products like gasoline in the refining process, is a gray, powdery material whose primary component is like pottery clay. It also contains small amounts of metals and metal oxides that are normally also found in outdoor soil and dust.

Studies on short-term exposure to FCC catalyst show that it is unlikely to cause health effects beyond slight eye and respiratory tract irritation. It is not anticipated that a single short-term exposure to FCC catalyst dust in the air would increase the  risk of long-term health effects.

The potential for health impacts related to Tuesday’s release were minimized further by the brief duration of the release, as studies of short-term exposures are typically based on exposures of hours or days.

We regret that this incident caused immediate concern and inconvenience in our community. Seven individuals, including six youth, at a nearby park did seek medical attention at a local emergency room and were released shortly thereafter.

Phillips 66 would like to thank our emergency personnel for their quick response and reassure our community that we are fully investigating the cause of the upset in an effort to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.

The FCC unit currently remains down; however, the refinery continues to operate.

The refinery’s community hotline number is (580) 767-7130."

According to a fact sheet from the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, many refineries use a process called Fluidized Catalytic Cracking (FCC) to turn heavy petroleum products into lighter petroleum products. The FCC catalysts' appearance is generally a powder and is comprised of amorphous silica, clay-like materials and a small amount of metal or metal oxides.

The information states that the FCC catalyst can cause reversible short-term coughing and wheezing. However, it states that it is "unlikely that a single short-term exposure to FCC catalyst in air would be associated with an increased risk of long-term health effects."

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