Refineries and the environment

Air, water and land can all be affected by refinery operations. Refineries are well aware of their responsibility to the community and employ a variety of processes to safeguard the environment. The processes described below are those used by the Shell refinery at Geelong in Victoria (Australia), but all refineries employ similar techniques in managing the environmental aspects of refining.

Air
Preserving air quality around a refinery involves controlling the following emissions: sulphur oxides, hydrocarbon vapours, smoke and smells. Sulphur enters the refinery in crude oil feed. Crude’s may contain up to 5 percent sulphur. To deal with this refineries incorporate a sulphur recovery unit which operates on the principles described above. Many of the products used in a refinery produce hydrocarbon vapours. The escape of vapours to atmosphere are prevented by various means. Floating roofs are installed in tanks to prevent evaporation and so that there is no space for vapour to gather in the tanks. Where floating roofs cannot be used, the vapours from the tanks are collected in a vapour recovery system and absorbed back into the product stream. In addition, pumps and valves are routinely checked for vapour emissions and repaired if a leakage is found. Smoke is formed when the burning mixture contains insufficient oxygen or is not sufficiently mixed. Modern furnace control systems prevent this from happening during normal operation. Smells are the most difficult emission to control and the easiest to detect. Refinery smells are generally associated with compounds containing sulphur, where even tiny losses are sufficient to cause a noticeable odour.

Water
Aqueous effluent’s consist of cooling water, surface water and process water. The majority of the water discharged from the refinery has been used for cooling the various process streams. The cooling water does not actually come into contact with the process material and so has very little contamination. The cooling water passes through large « interceptors » which separate any oil from minute leaks etc., prior to discharge. The cooling water system at Geelong Refinery is a once-through system with no recirculation. Rainwater falling on the refinery site must be treated before discharge to ensure no oily material washed off process equipment leaves the refinery. This is done first by passing the water through smaller « plant oil catchers », which each treat rainwater from separate areas on the site, and then all the streams pass to large « interceptors » similar to those used for cooling water. The rainwater from the production areas is further treated in a Dissolved Air Flotation (DAF) unit. This unit cleans the water by using a flocculation agent to collect any remaining particles or oil droplets and floating the resulting flock to the surface with millions of tiny air bubbles. At the surface the flock is skimmed off and the clean water discharged. Process water has actually come into contact with the process streams and so can contain significant contamination. This water is treated in the « sour water treater » where the contaminants (mostly ammonia and hydrogen sulphide) are removed and then recovered or destroyed in a downstream plant. The process water, when treated in this way, can be reused in parts of the refinery and discharged through the process area rainwater treatment system and the DAF unit. Any treated process water that is not reused is discharged as Trade Waste to the sewerage system. This trade waste also includes the effluent from the refinery sewage treatment plant and a portion of treated water from the DAF unit.

As most refineries import and export many feed materials and products by ship, the refinery and harbour authorities are prepared for spillage from the ship or pier. In the event of such a spill, equipment is always on standby at the refinery and it is supported by the facilities of the Australian Marine Oil Spill Centre at Geelong, Victoria.

Land
The refinery safeguards the land environment by ensuring the appropriate disposal of all wastes. Within the refinery, all hydrocarbon wastes are recycled through the refinery slops system. This system consists of a network of collection pipes and a series of dewatering tanks. The recovered hydrocarbon is reprocessed through the distillation units. Wastes that cannot be reprocessed are either recycled to manufacturers (e.g. some spent catalysts can be reprocessed), disposed of in EPA-approved facilities off-site, or chemically treated on-site to form inert materials which can be disposed to land-fill within the refinery.
Waste movements within the refinery require a « Process liquid, Sludge and Solid waste disposal permit ». Wastes that go off-site must have an EPA « Waste Transport Permit ».

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