James Chilton | The Wyoming Triune-Eagle
CHEYENNE – Residents living northeast of the HollyFrontier oil refinery are looking for answers after an incident Friday left their neighborhoods shrouded in an ash-like substance.
Lyn Vredenburg, who lives near the intersection of Ninth Street and Hot Springs Avenue, said the sky was clear when she came home from work at about 5:30 p.m. Friday. But not long after, she said, the air was heavy with particulates coming from the oil refinery.
“I walked back out, and it was like a volcano blew up,” Vredenburg said. “The ash was so thick, we had to run out and close the windows. We had to sweep our porch, that’s how thick the ash was.”
According to a news release from HollyFrontier spokesman Don Finley, the “ash” was actually a catalyst that was released from the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) unit, which he said had experienced “an upset.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, FCC units employ a chemical process that uses catalyst to create new, smaller molecules from larger ones in order to make gasoline and other fuels. The catalyst is a solid, sand-like material that is heated into a liquid, which then breaks up larger molecules of oil into gasoline, butane, propane and other products.
In his release, Finley said the catalyst release, while unintentional, should not pose a health threat to the affected neighborhoods.
“The catalyst particles … can be an irritant but (are) a relatively benign material and not harmful or hazardous,” Finley wrote. “The material can be swept off surfaces and thrown in the trash safely.”
Still, Vredenburg and several of her neighbors are left wondering just how safe they are. Vredenburg said she has experienced similar releases from the refinery before.
“We’re concerned for our safety living in that area,” she said. “This is not the first time, and this is the worst one – it was so thick you couldn’t even see. I’ve been coughing ever since, and I’m on oxygen at night.”
Another neighbor, Dawn Warner, said she and her husband made the mistake of leaving their home’s windows open while they spent Friday in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“We had our windows open because it had been a nice day,” Warner said. “The dust was all over outside, and it’s all over inside our house. In some of the places we had upwards of an inch of it around, and there’s still a pile on my patio.”
Despite Finley’s assurance that the catalyst is not harmful, Warner said both she and her husband have been ill since Friday’s incident.
“Saturday he was sick all day, and I had a horrible, horrible migraine and my eyes were burning,” she said. “I talked to some of my neighbors, and their eyes were burning too. It can’t be healthy for any of us, and when something goes wrong over there, they need to be responsible for it.”
Finley’s news release said HollyFrontier is working on getting a hotline in place that residents can call to get assistance with car washes or other cleanup efforts. Phone calls and emails sent to Finley for comment were not returned as of 5:30 p.m. Monday.