Hess brand sputtering after a long run

Hess sold its North Charleston petroleum terminal to Houston-based Buckeye Partners in December.

Hess is running on fumes in Charleston.

Its needle plunged below the red line about two weeks ago, when its owner agreed to sell its retail fuel business for nearly $2.9 billion to Marathon Petroleum.

All 1,350 service stations and convenience stores bearing the familiar Hess name will be switched over the next three years to the flashier Speedway moniker.

But, locally at least, the brand with the green-and-white color scheme began to fade to gray six months ago, with the December sale of its North Charleston marine terminal.

Hess is "from off," but it's hardly a Kangaroo-come-lately. Records show the then-New Jersey-based company was buying land for its namesake filling stations in Charleston as far back as the mid-1960s, when stylish gas-guzzlers still ruled the highways and byways.

But even before then, Hess had planted its flag in the Lowcountry in a big way - along an industrialized stretch of the Cooper River.

The company's long run can be traced to the mid-1940s, when locally based Coastal Terminals Inc. built a private port to handle petroleum shipments off Virginia Avenue in North Charleston.

News reports show that the business changed hands at least once before Hess bought it in early 1963 to store and supply fuel for its growing chain of East Coast gas stations.

The terminal, which is just down river from Interstate 526, kept to itself for most of the next half-century, with one notable exception: a vivid, freaky near-disaster that's coming up on its 27th anniversary.

The date was June 20, 1987. On an early Saturday afternoon, a lightning bolt zapped one of Hess' giant domed tanks, igniting the 2.5 million gallons of gasoline that was stored inside. The massive blaze raged for more than two days, causing about $20 million in damage when adjusted for inflation. About 570 firefighters from 34 departments responded to keep the flames from spreading.

Incredibly, no one was seriously hurt.

More recently, Hess has been feeling the heat in other ways.

Two years ago, it mothballed a money-losing refinery it co-owned on the island of St. Croix that had been a sizable driver of business for the North Charleston operation.

Also, the hedge fund Elliott Capital Management began pressuring the company last year to unload some assets and focus on its plan to become a pure petroleum exploration and production business. Hess announced the sale of its entire East Coast and Caribbean terminal network, including the Virginia Avenue site, to Buckeye Partners in October. The $850 million deal closed Dec. 12.

Houston-based Buckeye paid about $5.9 million for the 60 acres of industrial waterfront real estate in North Charleston, county property records show.

"The Southeast is a big growth area for us," spokesman Kevin Goodwin said Thursday.

Hess will maintain a tenuous connection to its former North Charleston port business. Buckeye has committed to handle its fuel shipments for at least four years.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.