Imperial Oil flaring was 'excessive,' says Sarnia fire chief

A spokesman for Imperial Oil said shooting flames that seemed to surround the company's complex in Sarnia Thursday night were just "visible flaring" and not a cause for concern. But the city's fire chief said the flames were "not normal."

Company spokesperson said the flames were just the product of "visible flaring" to relieve gases

Videos shared on social media showed towering flames burning at Imperial Oil in Sarnia. Ont. Thursday night. A company spokesperson said no employees were hurt in the fire. (Lisa Pugliano Mrowiec/Facebook)

Towering flames that seemed to surround Imperial Oil's complex Thursday evening in Sarnia were "not normal," according to the city's fire chief.

Several videos showing the glowing spits of fire — which lit up the night sky and were visible from Port Huron — were posted to social media.

"They had an excessive discharge to their flare," said Sarnia Fire and Rescue Services chief John Kingyens. "It was not a normal occurance."

Company spokesperson, Jon Harding, said the flames were just the product of "visible flaring" to relieve gases that needed to be burned off before an "internal issue" could be fixed.

"I can't dispute what the photo looks like," he said, adding that low cloud cover can sometimes make flames look more dramatic than they really are. "It looks like there's also light from the flares reflecting off the steam."

The chief agreed the fire appears much larger in the videos than it was in reality.

"It looks like the whole refinery is burning when it's not," he said.

Lack of information an issue

Kingyens said he's still in the dark about the cause of the flaring, whether it be human error, an operational error, maintenance or an equipment failure. All he knows is the plant was experiencing a "massive shut down" when their product went up in smoke.

"We had no information to offer anybody and we received a lot of requests," he said. "Our own credibility is at stake when we don't have an answer for the public."

The three flares began burning around 6:20 p.m. and the site's emergency sirens were activated to alert staff, according to a media release.

"Shortly after responding to the operating issue, Imperial fire response personnel assisted in extinguishing a grass fire on public property to the south of Imperial's site," the statement reads.

No injuries were reported during the flaring and Environment Canada has been notified, according to Harding.

The company also notified city officials and members of the public shortly after flaring began and air quality assessments showed no "elevated readings" from the burning, he added.

"We operate our flares safely," said Harding.

Imperial Oil employees took this picture some time after the flaring began Thursday night. Three flares were burning in the videos posted to social media, but only one flare is being used in the photo above. (Jon Harding, Imperial Oil)