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Oklahoma residents concerned over new butane facility

July 10, 2018

JENKS, Okla. (AP) — The town had a population under 2,000 people in the 1950s, when several oil storage tanks were built nearly two miles from downtown Jenks, where they remained uncontroversial for decades. Until a couple of things changed.

First, Jenks grew exponentially, with a current population approaching 23,000. And the tanks no longer sit well outside town, with parts of more than a dozen neighborhoods now sitting within a half mile of the transfer terminal near Elwood Avenue and the Creek Turnpike.

Second, the facility recently added a 60,000-gallon butane tank.

A group of concerned citizens, calling themselves Keep Jenks Safe, gathered 1,000 signatures on a petition to block construction of the new butane tank, but city counselors approved the permit late last year and the tank is already in place.

Keep Jenks Safe, however, hasn’t given up. The group will host a “safety seminar” on Aug. 9 in the Community Room at Jenks City Hall, the Tulsa World reported.

“It’s a bad deal for Jenks,” said David Randolph, an attorney who’s leading the Keep Jenks Safe effort.

Leaks could spread noxious and potentially explosive fumes for several miles in every direction, Randolph said, noting that new soccer fields have been built nearby with several youth-league baseball diamonds located roughly a mile from the butane tanks. The blast radius for an explosion would measure at least a half mile, putting more than 100 homes at risk, Randolph said, including his own house.

“But it’s not about my house or any particular neighborhood,” he said. “This type of facility simply doesn’t belong in a populated area.”

As suburban Tulsa continues to sprawl toward the south, where oil exploration sparked the city’s early growth a century ago, more and more developments will inevitably encroach on oil infrastructure in areas that were originally well outside of populated areas, experts have said.

In Glenpool, for example, city leaders acknowledge that future development will have to be limited near 131st Street and U.S. 75 to keep a safe distance from underground pipelines and storage tanks that have been there for decades. Residential development, in particular, would be highly unlikely to gain approval near the storage tanks, which include butane storage similar to the Jenks facility, said Glenpool spokeswoman Mandy Vavrinak.

Some experts, however, think Glenpool has already allowed development too close to the butane-blending facility. A residential neighborhood sits less than a mile to the south. And there’s a Walmart Supercenter less than a half mile away, within the “blast radius” where significant damage would be expected if a butane tank were to explode, said Fred Storer, an engineer and environmental consultant.

“In such an extreme event, trucks on U.S. 75 would be toppled,” Storer said. “In the event of a fire involving the butane facilities, it would be necessary to close U.S. 75.”

Oil companies often add butane to heavy crude oil to make it easier to push through pipelines, while adding it to gasoline will change the fuel’s vapor pressure and decrease carbon emissions. But it’s highly explosive.

“Accidents are rare,” Storer said. “But when they happen, they can be spectacular.”

For example, Keep Jenks Safe points to a November 1987 butane explosion in Pampa, Texas, where windows were broken as far away as six miles. And in February 2005, a tanker truck exploded in Utah, creating a 100-foot-tall fireball, damaging nearby homes and prompting the evacuation of 1,500 residents.

The Jenks facility, however, appears to have a clean safety record. And safety precautions “exceed regulatory requirements,” said Rich Johnson, a spokesman for Phillips 66.

“We are committed to ensuring the safety of our employees and communities where we live and work,” Johnson said, noting that the Jenks facility has not seen any employee injuries in nearly four decades. “That same commitment to safety has been applied to our butane blending project.”

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Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com

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