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Was there once an oil refinery in Wilmington?

Ben Steelman

Yes, there was. From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the refinery tower was a familiar sight on the Cape Fear River, as one crossed the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge on the way into Wilmington.

The refinery, located on a 13-acre site at 801 Surry St., Wilmington [Map this], was constructed around 1971. A small unit — with production that never exceeded 17,000 barrels per day — it had a brief, troubled history.

From 1972 to 1981, it was operated by Axel Johnson Inc. In 1994, after Axel Johnson let its lease on the facility expire, it was taken over by Republic Refining Co. During the spring and summer of 1995, the refinery sparked strong protests from downtown Wilmington residents after a batch of oil containing sulfurous mercaptins spread strong, noxious odors over much of the city. Republic shut down operations in January 1996.

City Gas & Transmission of Lexington, Ky., next tried to reopen the refinery but ran into financial problems; in the meantime, the city revised its zoning ordinance, making it all but impossible for the refinery to reopen.

After further changes of ownership — the Wyandotte Indian tribe of Oklahoma briefly expressed interest in the site and even put up signs on the property but quickly pulled out — the refinery property was acquired at auction in 1996 by Linda Carroll, a businesswoman originally from California. Meanwhile, the refinery was declared a Superfund site; between 1987 and 1992, officials cited at least five oil leaks on the property on into the Cape Fear River nearby.

In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took over cleanup efforts, a process that would eventually take two years and cost nearly $8 million. The refining tower and several oil tanks were dismantled, some 5.5 miles of underground and above-ground pipes were removed, and between 30,000 and 50,000 cubic yards of soil, polluted with oil. lead and other toxic chemicals, were carted away.

Few traces now remain. In 2008, the old refinery grounds were included in the proposed Gateway project, which involved plans for an 11-story complex with 260 condominiums, a restaurant, 40 boat slips and first-floor retail space on the riverfront.

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