- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

NEW YORK, Feb. 22 (UPI) — The four-alarm fire at a fuel storage tank farm that sent flames and smoke towering into the sky over Staten Island Friday killed two people and injured a third but will not affect the supply of gasoline to the East Coast, ExxonMobil said.

A barge at the southern end of New York harbor on Arthur Kill carrying 100,000 barrels of unleaded gasoline ignited after an explosion felt over a wide area. The fire briefly sent aloft a billowing black cloud laced with roaring flames — a spectacular sight across Manhattan and parts of New Jersey.

"Both of the deceased were pulled from the Arthur Kill (river)," a police spokesman told United Press International. "The cause of the fire is being investigated by several government agencies but it is not considered suspicious."

Earlier, in a news conference on Staten Island, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said one barge sank and another nearby barge caught fire.

"There's absolutely no evidence and no reason to think at this moment that it's anything other than a tragic accident," Bloomberg said. "About half of four million gallons of gasoline was being transferred from the barge to the storage tank when the explosion occurred."

"All of the damage was confined to the barge and the very immediate vicinity, within yards," the mayor said.

The fire occurred at the 203 acre Port Mobil on southwest Staten Island, opposite New Jersey on the Arthur Kill (river). John Mulligan, spokesman for the Fire Department of New York, said, "The injured male was taken to Staten Island University Hospital, no evacuations have taken place, but we are advising residents to close windows because of the acrid smoke."

"The air at ground level should pose no significant health effect," ExxonMobil said in a statement. The combustion of gasoline, the company said, "creates mainly carbon dioxide and water" accompanied by soot.

Both men killed were employees of the owner of the barge, the Bouchard Barge Company. The man injured was an employee of ExxonMobil.

The company said it was in the process of "redirecting product to ensure supply is available to our customers."

"We are greatly saddened by the injuries and loss of life, and extend our deepest sympathy to the families," Port Mobil Terminal Manager Hank Muller said.

Peter Zipf, editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies, that provides energy information and marketing services on global oil markets worldwide, said the fire may not have a large impact on petroleum.

"The Coast Guard says the Arthur Kill — a major shipping lane — is being examined and could be reopened fairly soon," Zipf told UPI after the fire had diminished. "The cash market for petroleum seems comfortable that this incident will not impact greatly the transport and storage of petroleum products."

Initially, when it was reported in the morning that the explosion occurred at a refinery the futures market for oil spiked, but once it was clarified that it was at a storage facility and contained, the market stabilized, according to Zipf.

"The cash market for oil — the buying and selling of petroleum products at the moment — is not significantly up and it may not be impacted if the channel is reopened soon," he said.

"There are a lot of petroleum storage facilities in the Northeast and as large as the Port Mobil facility is, there are a lot of facilities out there."

"A barge containing 100,000 barrels of unleaded gasoline was being offloaded when an explosion occurred," ExxonMobil spokeswoman, Allison Rana in Fairfax, Va., told UPI.

"The Port Mobil facility has 39 operational tanks," Rana said. "At the time of the incident the facility was not at capacity — the facility stores gasoline, heating oil and diesel — there is no oil."

ExxonMobil said a contract firm, Clean Harbors, had been contacted to conduct an environmental cleanup.

The explosion shook many in the New York City borough physically and emotionally. Staten Island is the home of many New York City firefighters and the home of the families of many firefighters lost as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Many feared the black smoke that that leaped hundreds of feet into the air might have signaled another terrorist attack.

Barge B#125 was operated by Bouchard Transportation Co., Inc. and in a statement the Long Island-based company said its first concern was for the missing and injured and their families.

"Bouchard is concerned with the environmental impact of the explosion and has retained several companies to contain any spill of gasoline and mitigate any damage," Bouchard Transportation Co. said in a statement.

"This is yet another example of no matter how careful you are, our dependence on fossil fuels will result in accidents such as this," Greenpeace said in a statement.

About 750 barges load and unload at the terminal a year, ExxonMobil said.

(Alex Cukan in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.)

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