More Changes and Challenges


The refinery had to deal with crude oil supply interruptions during the 1970s. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised prices. Individual oil-producing countries instituted embargoes. Beginning in 1976, the refinery began diversifying to produce chemical products in addition to petroleum products. The facility’s acetone plant went into service in 1980. The Wood River Refinery’s official name was changed to the Wood River Manufacturing Complex, symbolically affirming the facility’s new direction.

Women had worked for the refinery in administrative support positions for years, and had filled maintenance job labor shortages during World War II.  But the Wood River Refinery first began routinely hiring women for non-administrative roles in the 1970s. In 1977, the Wood River Refinery posted a personal best crude oil processing average of 283,000 barrels a day. It broke the record the next year with 287,000 barrels daily. But by 1981, crude oil processing had decreased to 200,000 barrels a day.

Another tragic explosion

In the winter of 1984-1985, moisture in an exterior propane gas line near the “D and D” dewaxing and deasphalting building froze and cracked the 4-inch pipe. On January 23, 1985, the sun came out and melted the ice. Gas escaped through the now open crack.

The cloud of gas found its way into the “D and D” building before a heater pilot light ignited it. The explosion and fire nearly obliterated the “D and D” building, killing one worker and injuring seven others. Flames leapt to 150 feet high. Refinery firefighters controlled the blaze within an hour, but it continued to burn for five days. The explosion could be heard eight miles away and broke windows in the South Roxana community.

Spills, leaks, and emissions

The refinery had been addressing pollution generation since the late 1950s. One innovation, storing unused butane underground for use in winter gasoline formulations, eliminated the need to burn off gases in the summertime. In 1970, a new vent gas compressor operation addressed sulfur dioxide emissions produced during distillation. Redesigned storage tanks reduced hydrocarbon vapor emissions.

But in December of 1987, a distilling unit released 4,900 pounds of benzene into the atmosphere.  This began a string of spills, leaks, and emissions at the refinery. In mid-August of 1989, catalytic cracking unit CCU-1 emitted 128,000 pounds of powdery catalyst. On November 28th, a sulfur pit fire resulted in an unknown amount of sulfur dioxide air pollution.

Two weeks later a fire in the sulfur recovery unit released 300 pounds of sulfur dioxide. In the meantime, the saturates gas plant emitted a total of 6,500 pounds of hydrocarbons. Later the same month, a ruptured frozen refinery pipe spilled 294,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline into the ground.

Then on Monday, February 19, 1990, a refinery worker discovered crude oil shooting out of the ground among the storage tanks. The oil had leaked from a 20-inch pipe buried three feet underground. By the end of the week, Shell had assessed the extent of the spill: 672,000 gallons. It took over two weeks to clean up the spill itself and several more to remediate the contaminated soil.