ExxonMobil’s Joliet Refinery is one of the 101 most dangerous chemical facilities in the country, according to a report released recently. The report identified a technology that could lessen the threat of a toxic gas release, but company officials refused to say whether they are considering an alternative approach to refining.
“Chemical Security 101: What You Don’t Have Can’t Leak, or Be Blown Up by Terrorists” was released last month by a liberal think tank called the Center for American Progress. The report identified a different process for refining crude oil that would lessen the threat to nearly 1 million people living within range of a potential toxic gas release.
The change would address both accidental releases at the refinery and intentional ones caused by terrorists.
Currently, the Joliet Refinery uses a highly toxic gas, hydrofluoric acid, in the alkylation process that turns crude oil into gasoline. Hydrofluoric acid can be carried by the wind for miles. Report co-author Paul Orum said the refinery could switch to sulfuric acid technologies or a solid acid catalyst method already used by about two-thirds of U.S. petroleum refineries.
Sulfuric acid is dangerous if it spills on the ground, but it is a liquid that can be contained, Orum said.
ExxonMobil spokesman Kevin M. Allexon said safety is always the company’s top priority, but he declined to comment on specifics of the refinery operation or whether the facility is considering any alternatives.
“To ensure that our refinery alkylation unit is operated safely, we have a highly trained and disciplined workforce which focuses on both good operating practices and mitigation systems,” Allexon wrote in an e-mailed response to The Daily Journal.
Federal standards for refineries are set to expire in October 2009. The Center for American Progress report urges policy makers to include the safer alternative in the new set of standards.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards put in place by Congress two years ago focus mainly on physical security measures. They do not protect against insider sabotage that could lead to a catastrophic release of toxic gas, according to the report.
The Joliet Refinery was one of several private firms that handle hazardous materials to get money from Homeland Security to protect against potential terrorist attacks. But the grant did not address the alternative refining process.
“I think with some effective federal leadership, there’s every reason to think we could see significant improvement,” Orum said.
The report can be viewed on the Center for American Progress’ Web site…