Fluoride Action Network

Ferndale refinery listed as ‘high-hazard’ over chemical leak danger

Source: The Bellingham Herald (Washington) | December 15th, 2008 | By ISABELLE DILLS
Industry type: Oil Refineries

ConocoPhillips Refinery near Ferndale has been listed as one of 303 high-hazard chemical facilities in the U.S. in a report released by the Center for American Progress.

The center, a nonpartisan research and education institute, identified ConocoPhillips and other facilities as “high-hazard” because of the type of chemicals they use and the number of people who live in what is called the “vulnerability zone.”

The information on chemicals and vulnerability zones was obtained from Risk Management Plans, which such facilities regularly submit to the Environmental Protection Agency. The plans require facilities such as ConocoPhillips to include a worst-case scenario analysis.

In a worst-case scenario for the refinery at 3901 Unick Road, a toxic gas release of hydrofluoric acid has the potential to travel up to 14.9 miles and endanger 120,000 people living in the “vulnerability zone,” said Paul Orum, a chemical safety consultant to the Center for American Progress. The refinery uses hydrofluoric acid during the process of refining crude oil into gasoline.

But a worst-case scenario is unrealistic considering all of the employee training, security procedures and emergency response systems that are in place, said Jeff Callender, a spokesman for ConocoPhillips Refinery.

Every employee at ConocoPhillips, even those who work in administration, take annual safety training, Callender said.

The refinery also uses video monitors, lasers and other equipment to detect any potential leaks, he said.

If a leak were to occur, the facility has a number of systems in place to make sure it is contained. One of those systems includes water cannons that spray water to knock down chemical vapors and keep them from spreading, Callender said. Another security system includes emergency isolation valves, which can isolate vessels and shut in leaks.

The center’s report, which suggests facilities switch to safer, alternative chemicals, suggested ConocoPhillips switch to sulfuric acid.

Breathing in the vapor from hydrofluoric acid can irritate the respiratory tract and can cause coughing, fever, chills and sometimes death, according to the report. Breathing in sulfuric acid can cause tooth erosion and irritation of the respiratory tract, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Web site.

Additionally, when sulfuric acid is spilled, it remains on the ground and is only harmful to what it touches, Orum said.

“Hydrofluoric acid can drift off site as a toxic gas, and that’s what makes it so dangerous,” he said.

But switching to an alternative chemical is not as easy as it sounds, said Ron Chittum, a senior policy advisor for the American Petroleum Institute.

A facility would need 140 times as much sulfuric acid to make the same barrel of alkylate as hydrofluoric acid, Chittum said.

Alkylate is used to raise the level of octane in gasoline, Callender said.

Sulfuric acid is also problematic in that it creates waste and needs to be reprocessed off-site, Callender said. Hydrofluoric acid gets used up in the alkylation process and doesn’t create waste.

“I’m not aware of any refinery that has switched from (hydrofluoric acid) to (sulfuric acid),” Chittum said.

Other high-hazard facilities in Washington state, according to the report, are Kimberly-Clark Worldwide in Everett, Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products Holdings in Camas, Chemtrade Logistics in Kalama and Univar USA Inc. in Tacoma.

To see the Center for American Progress report, go to www.americanprogress.org and look for the publication “Chemical Security 101.”