Ponca City mysterious smoke was catalyst. What does that mean exactly?

PONCA CITY, Okla. - More information is now available on an incident at the Phillips 66 refinery Tuesday when seven people- six of them kids - experienced scratchy throats and respiratory problems after smoke started pouring from the nearby refinery.

They had to be de-contaminated by fire crews in a parking lot of a hospital.

Phillips 66 released another statement on what caused this thick smog across the road in Ponca City on Tuesday, saying in part

"the unit experienced an upset, resulting in a brief release of FCC catalyst into the air."

But what is a catalyst? News 4 talked to an independent oil and gas chemist.

"It's used to break down the crude oil into its individual components such as gasoline and diesel," said Jeffery Havard of Havard Industries.

Havard says the catalyst that was used in this case was part of the Zeolite family.

"Instead of an acid that can be spilled and have vapors that come off, this is a dry form. So this catalyst is a natural catalyst, naturally occurring minerals that have salts and things in them that you would typically find in environmental conditions," said Havard.

In their statement Phillips 66 agreeing with Havard's description, saying,

"FCC catalyst.. 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."

But if inhaled is it dangerous?

In their statement, the refinery says,

"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."

"I've been past that plant many many times, given the fact that it`s a natural mineral, I wouldn't think the catalyst part I would really say shouldn`t be that dangerous at all. Inhaling it? Maybe to a small extent, but I would think unless you are working at the refinery itself that the levels you would be exposed to are far lower," said Havard

The Department of Environmental Quality said in a statement that Phillips 66 has already filed an initial incident report and that quote

"DEQ has been on-site at the refinery and in contact with Phillips 66 personnel. DEQ will investigate the matter further."

Here is the complete statement from Phillips 66.

"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."

Here is the complete statement from the DEQ.

"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 the 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."

News 4 contacted the family of the woman that went to the hospital with the 6 kids.  She reportedly still has a sore throat and is now represented by an attorney.

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