Disaster narrowly averted in 2009 explosion, blaze

Shortly after noon on July 24, 2009, two 25,000-gallon tanks and two 4,000-gallon tanks exploded at a refinery that recycles used oil near the Portland Expo Center, on North Force Avenue.

As Portland firefighters raced to the scene, they observed a large smoke plume extending "several hundred feet in the air," according to a Portland Fire & Rescue report obtained through a public records request.

Firefighters extinguished the fire before additional tanks were destroyed, and no one was injured or evacuated.

Damages could have been much worse.

"Several oil-containment silos were threatened, as well as mobile tankers containing unknown product," the fire bureau report concluded.

"Luckily, it was confined to a preheat furnace and was extinguished before any stored liquids were ignited," says Tom Test, who works at the Expo Center and is a union steward with AFSCME Local 3580. He was standing about 150 yards from the fire and remembers it vividly.

"I stood in our back parking lot and watched the flames and big cloud of black smoke," Test recalls, "as the fire department parked at the end of the street and stood by until they figured out what was burning and what kind of risk to expect."

The fire started when an employee was filling a transformer oil tank, releasing fumes that "drifted to a nearby high-output furnace attached to a separate tank," the fire bureau report concluded.

"Once the fumes reached the furnace, which was identified as the ignition area, the fire began free-burning fuel spilled in the process," the report said. "This led to a small fuel vapor explosion, damaging the burner and releasing additional fuel in the area of the fire."

Scott Briggs, chief operating officer of Oil Re-Refining Co. or ORRCO, the owner of the plant at the time, attributed the incident to "operator error."

After the fire, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division investigated and found 13 "serious" safety violations, records show, including eight that it said could have led to "death due to explosion." The agency issued fines totaling $4,755.

The plant is now owned by EcoLube Recovery.

Paul Koberstein