While standing under a 125-foot-long empty coke drum with a 32-foot diameter, BP employees Jeanne Garris and Brad Etlin joked that you can understand how large the BP Whiting Refinery modernization project is just by looking at the massive storage tanks.
Six drums weighing at least 2,400 tons sit in a field ready to be installed to replace smaller drums that hold a by-product of the refining process.
During an exclusive tour of the refinery, The Times learned about the various processes and environmental efforts that are part of BP's modernization project to ensure the facility's long-term viability.
Groups of contract and refinery workers dotted the landscape of the 1,400-acre refinery campus that spans three cities -- Whiting, Hammond and East Chicago. Etlin, a BP spokesman, said the project is being done in phases so as not to disrupt daily operations.
Garris said by increasing the refining capacity of high-sulfur Canadian crude oil, the refinery's largest crude-distillation unit will be replaced with a model that is better designed to process crude oils with more impurities such as sulfur and nitrogen. Equipment removing the impurities will also be upgraded in the modernization project, Etlin said.
The amount of crude oil the refinery can accept -- up to 405,000 barrels daily -- is expected to remain the same after the project. The intake of lighter crude oils will drop as a result.
"It provides us flexibility to run what we need to run," said Garris, who is operations superintendent for asphalt and docks.
Garris said the processing and storing capacity of by-products such as asphalt and coke have to be increased as well. She estimated that up to three times the current amount of coke will be produced post-expansion. Petroleum coke is akin to coal, and BP plans to sell the material for use in generating power and making steel.
To handle increased amounts of wastewater, an 11.8 million-gallon tank will be built to increase holding capacity by nearly 60 percent and reduce the chance of disrupting any water treatment-process. There are two wastewater holding tanks at the site currently.
Garris said she's encouraged by the commitment BP Products North America and its London-based parent have shown the Northwest Indiana refinery and its workers.
"They've taken money from other areas of the world to fund this project," Garris said.
Copyright (c) 2009, The Times, Munster, Ind. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.