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WHITING | A tower of flame rose over the BP Whiting Refinery again Thursday morning, in the the second flare-up and third incident in a week.

Fire soared hundreds of feet into the air, and caused thick black smoke to billow over the refinery, where 1,100 United Steelworkers-represented workers have been on strike since Feb. 8.

"One of their towers had a huge flame rising out of it with black smoke," said Rosa Estrada, who witnessed it from her home in East Chicago. "It went 200 to 300 feet in the air. It was just enormous. It looked really dangerous."

Estrada, a member of the American Postal Workers Union, said she was not confident in the replacement workers after another massive flare-up Monday morning and a leak Wednesday that shut down Pipe Still 11C at the 126-year-old refinery. She's worried about emissions from the black smoke and the possibility of an explosion.

"It seems like an imminent threat," she said. "If this keeps happening, they're obviously not trained. They need to get the refinery under control and get the contract done. They need to get a better handle on it."

Several picketing union members and residents photographed and videotaped Thursday's flare-up, posting images on social media. Flare-ups occur to relieve pressure in the system when there's a malfunction, described in the industry as an "upset." 

BP spokesman Scott Dean said the flare-up was part of normal operations, and the replacement workers are properly trained.

"All refineries operate flare stacks to safely combust excess gases and the appearance of these flares can change based on day-to-day operating conditions," he said. "The Whiting Refinery is operating safely and producing fuels for customers."

Pipestill 11C, the second largest unit at the refinery with a capacity of 110,000 barrels per day, was shut down Wednesday morning after a malfunction. Dean said he had nothing to report on when it would be repaired. The Reuters news service, citing anonymous sources, said it would take a few days to fix the crude-distillation unit and get it back online.

USW District 7 Director Mike Millsap said the repeated incidents at the refinery this week — the third week of the strike — showed that replacement workers were not as well-trained as the union workers and that the striking workers were needed to operate the refinery safely.

"At some point, it could very well be disastrous," he said. "The flames are coming out higher and more often. The flare-ups are getting worse and more often. They should be a concern."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

Senior Copy Editor

Jeanette is a journalist with The Times Media Co. who has worked as both a reporter and editor. She has a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield.