No one ever wants to read the headline, “Hydrofluoric acid cloud kills thousands in Philadelphia refinery blast.” According to an investigation from the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released last week, that headline came closer to reality than we should ever have to contemplate.
The CSB reported that 5,000 pounds of lethal hydrofluoric acid was released as a result of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery blast on June 21. By a miracle, the force of the refinery blast sent the acid high enough into the air that it didn’t settle as a vapor close to the ground.
Given the catastrophe we escaped, the explosion should be a wake-up call to ensure the right questions are being asked. Not about the city’s immediate response in the aftermath of the blast, which included advisory committees to explore the impact, but about a bold vision for the future that involves the public.
The CSB findings demand pressing and urgent responses from city leaders. We get that the city must be cautious about panicking people over present or future dangers, but the current volume of the conversation doesn’t seem to match the seriousness of the event, especially in a city as densely populated as ours.
For example, what’s our overall energy and environmental policy? Earlier this month, Mayor Jim Kenney signed on to the Climate Collaborative of Greater Philadelphia to tackle climate change. But how does that jibe with the reality that on June 16, City Council approved a liquefied natural gas plant, expanding the city’s fossil fuel infrastructure? One week later, the refinery — a close neighbor to the LNG plant — exploded.
The future of the PES refinery site is unclear. It could very well be another energy plant. The city won’t have ultimate control, but it has ways to shape the ultimate outcome of who buys the site. Asking questions can help. For example:
Should we ban the use of the site as another refinery? The ultimate use will be determined by rulings from the bankruptcy court. The city has no direct control over that outcome but could use zoning and regulatory changes to have some impact.
Should we ban HF? There are alternatives to HF, which is used in only a third of the 135 refineries across the country. The Clean Air Council has called for a ban in Philadelphia. The city is unclear on its authority to ban HF, though energy experts say it is possible.
Where else is HF used and stored in the city, and where are the levels that could be potentially dangerous? The city should conduct an inventory of other facilities that use and store HF and inform the public where high levels exist. Dangerous chemicals are even more dangerous when the public doesn’t know about them.
The city faces a set of complicated environmental challenges — whether it’s our aging and sometimes toxic infrastructure or the future of legacy energy production. The mayor, City Council, and other regional leaders need to create a bold vision, with input from the public. They need to do it now — and they need to do it loudly.