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Massive Fire at South Philadelphia Oil Refinery Injures Five

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Massive Fire at South Philadelphia Oil Refinery Injures Five
Explosions and a blaze at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex on June 21. VOA News / YouTube screenshot

A fire broke out at a Philadelphia oil refinery Friday morning, starting with an explosion so massive it was felt as far away as South Jersey and Delaware County, Pennsylvania, CNN reported.


"All of a sudden — boom — the ground shook. The flame went up. Parts were falling out of the sky," Daryl Lee, who was on his paper route when the explosion ignited around 4 a.m., told 6 ABC Action News. "Like the sun landed on the ground, that's how bright it was. Then as it fell back down, you saw what looked like metal coming down. Like glitter, sparkles, raining down. That's when I realized this thing blew up."

The fire started in a tank containing butane and propane at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery in South Philadelphia, which is the 10th largest refinery in the nation and the largest on the East Coast, the company claims. Five workers were treated for minor injuries following the blaze, which was extinguished Saturday afternoon. At one point, more than 120 firefighters battled the flames with more than 50 pieces of equipment, 6 ABC Action News reported.

Smoke from the fire raised concerns about air pollution: the refinery is the No. 1 source of particulate matter in the Philadelphia area on a good day, according to NBC 10. However, the Philadelphia Department of Health measured the air quality and concluded that there were "no findings that would point to any immediate danger in the surrounding community at this time."

The city said it would continue to monitor air quality in a statement Sunday. The cause of the fire will be investigated starting Monday by agencies including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and the Philadelphia Fire Department's Fire Marshal's Office.

Friday's fire comes after a smaller blaze June 10, and the two fires have prompted renewed protests from community members and environmentalists who have long been concerned about the plant's impact on its neighbors.

The group Philly Thrive, which has been protesting the plant since 2015, held a press conference outside Philadelphia's City Hall Friday with four demands:

  1. That Mayor Jim Kenney and the City Council fund a study on turning the refinery into public land for community-owned energy projects
  2. That the Air Management Services and Environmental Protection Agency take stronger action, including imposing fines that would fund community projects and medical bills
  3. That the two agencies not renew the refinery's Title V air permit in July
  4. That a public meeting is coordinated with all agencies to report to the community on the dangers posed by the refinery and the enforcement actions being taken

Philly Thrive member Sylvia Bennet has lived with her two daughters near the refinery for their entire lives, and her daughters both have cancer.

"We're breathing bad air. All we ask for is that they clean up the air, take this fossil fuel away," Bennett told 6 ABC Action News.

However, the PES refinery, which filed for bankruptcy last year, could shutter without activist pressure. A University of Pennsylvania report said it could close within five years due to financial difficulties, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Friday's fire only adds to PES' financial woes. An alkylation unit involved in the fire was entirely destroyed, Reuters reported. It could take several years to rebuild. Damage to the unit and the refinery overall could mean one of the refinery's two sections would remain shut for an extended period, and then would operate at reduced rates while the unit is replaced.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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