When George Washington accepted the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, he never imagined that the Virginia town near the Chesapeake Bay would be the site of an oil refinery.
The refinery was built by Amoco in 1956. Situated on 600 acres along the York River, it's the only refinery in the state of Virginia. In 2002, the refinery processed about 62,000 barrels of crude oil a day into various gasolines and distillates and employed around 200 people. It was one of three refineries that were sold off following the merger of British Petroleum (BP) and Amoco in 1998. The buyer was Giant Industries of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Passing the Buck
In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered BP Amoco to investigate environmental contamination around the refinery. The investigation revealed that portions of soil, sediment, surface water and groundwater at the facility were contaminated with organic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene methyl tert-butyl ether (referred to as MTBE) and other chemicals. BP left the job for Giant to do. Giant, however, was purchased by Western Refining in 2006 for $1.23 billion.
In 2000, Bruce Edward Wykle, an insulation worker, brought suit against Raytheon Constructors and Liberty Mutual Insurance, claiming that he had asbestosis, which he had contracted in the course of his employment. From October 1990 to May 1991, he worked for Raytheon at the BP refinery in Yorktown, where he installed and repaired insulation. The claimant estimated that his job exposed him to asbestos dust during 80 to 90 percent of his workday. Wykle was awarded compensation for first-stage asbestosis.
Asbestos in Oil Refineries
Whenever flame or extreme heat was a danger, asbestos was the insulation preferred by builders during the majority of the 20th century. Materials that contained asbestos, therefore, were commonly utilized when erecting oil refineries like the BP refinery in Yorktown. In addition to being non-flammable and heat-proof, certain forms of asbestos are also especially resistant to chemical reactions. Floor tiles, insulation, benches, even protective uniforms, therefore, commonly were made with the fibrous mineral. And though the asbestos served its purpose well in preventing the spread of fire and in protecting lives from high heat, the mineral also exposed people who used it or worked around it to significant health risks.
Most of the asbestos was of the amosite variety. Frequently called "brown asbestos", amosite is particularly resistant to corrosive substances like those used in facilities like the BP Yorktown refinery because of the iron molecules in its chemical makeup. This amosite, in the form of asbestos transite, appeared in oil refineries, laboratories and chemical plants throughout the country for decades before it was banned in building materials in the 1970s.
Asbestos transite displayed qualities like cement; it could be molded into working surfaces, laminated and sprayed onto ductwork and pipes. As long as asbestos transite remained solid, this form of asbestos offered little danger. As transite with asbestos containing material (ACM) grows older and become prone to becoming powdery, however, lethal, microscopic particles are able to flake off into the atmosphere. That is, such asbestos is friable, a term used for material that is easy to crush. Also, laboratory kilns almost always were constructed with friable asbestos as part of their insulation linings.
The Problem with Friable Asbestos
Friable asbestos is a problem since in this form the particles are easily released into the atmosphere. Breathing asbestos particles can lead to diseases like asbestosis. Another rare, but generally lethal, asbestos-related disease is a type of cancer called mesothelioma. The pleural variety of mesothelioma, which attacks the tissue that lies between the lungs and the pleural cavity, is the most prevalent. Swallowing asbestos fibers, as can occur if the tiny fibers enter the air and fall on food or in beverages, can lead to pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma.
Mounting pressure from researchers, citizen groups and the media led to rules controlling how to use asbestos. When facilities such as the BP refinery in Yorktown were first operating, however, the use of asbestos was more common. Any asbestos that remains from that period can still pose danger if special care is not taken during remodeling projects.
Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger
Asbestos-related diseases, as opposed to most workplace injuries, which are readily observed and known about soon after the causing incident, may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to appear. With such a lag time between asbestos exposure and the manifestation of symptoms, a worker may not even associate his or her current condition with work done decades earlier. Therefore, it is extremely important for everyone who worked at or spent much time around places like the Yorktown BP refinery to ask their doctors for a mesothelioma treatment guide. New methods for treating mesothelioma are being developed, and early detection provides the patient the highest chance of beating the once deathly disease. Although there is no mesothelioma cure, the disease sometimes can be treated with various therapies.Sources
BP.com - BP To Offer Three US Refineries For Sale
EPA.gov - EPA Proposes Cleanup Plan for BP Amoco Refinery
Chris Flores, - Yorktown Refinery to get new owner: The refinery's parent company, Giant Industries, is to be sold for $1.23 billion in cash
Patrick Lynch, (Newport News, VA) Daily Press - Yorktown Refinery prepares cleanup: The owner is dealing with an environmental plan that came with the 2002 purchase
Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission - Bruce Edward Wykle, Claimant, vs. VWC File No. 196-17-45, August 1, 2000
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal