The city’s proposal comes after a fire and explosion at Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ Girard Point Refinery in June 2019, where 5,000 pounds of toxic hydrofluoric acid—a mixture of hydrogen fluoride (HF) and water—was released. No workers or residents were hurt, though the company has since closed permanently and a court recently approved PES’s bankruptcy filings.
“I urge other communities, as well as the federal government, to follow Philadelphia’s lead and phase out the use of HF in the refining industry entirely—for the safety of the workers as well as nearby communities,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said in an emailed statement after the proposed ban was introduced by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. Johnson didn’t return requests for comment, but a spokesperson said it could be months before the council addresses the issue.
Philadelphia isn’t the only jurisdiction that has proposed a ban on the toxic chemical in the past year. Officials in 13 states have petitioned the EPA to stop a proposed rollback of regulations aimed at preventing accidents involving hydrogen flouride. Efforts to regulate HF in California failed because of industry concerns over the cost of a ban. And the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility petitioned the EPA to ban hydrofluoric acid from use in the petrochemical process.
The EPA denied the group’s request last November, citing existing safety regulations on the substance.
If Philadelphia can pass a ban, “this will serve as an example for other jurisdictions,” said Brian Abernathy, managing director of Kenney’s office. Abernathy said Philadelphia is the first city to propose a ban on HF for petrochemical uses. In July 2019, the Duluth City Council in Minnesota proposed that the EPA revisit its HF rules after a Husky Energy plant that contained HF exploded on April 26, 2018.
Industry is watching closely what happens in Philadelphia because a “ban on HF would require significant process changes for affected companies, and those changes would have to be implemented inside that regulatory framework,” said Micah Smith, a partner with Conn Maciel Carey LLP’s national OSHA practice.
“If Philadelphia bans HF, it would be largely symbolic for the refining industry given the small geographic reach of the city’s ban,” Smith said. “But if other cities, states, or federal agencies followed Philadelphia’s lead, it’s difficult to estimate what the safety and economic effects would be for the industry.”
‘No One-Size-Fits-All Solution’
Hydrogen fluoride is used in many industrial applications, including as a catalyst in the oil refinery process. Exposure to even small amounts of hydrofluoric acid can cause corrosive, life-threatening chemical burns. The long-term effects of exposure include bone density loss and other health ramifications, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
In addition to PES in Philadelphia, refineries in Superior, Wis., and Torrance, Calif., have seen incidents that threatened releases of HF since 2015. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigates large-scale chemical releases such as these. Although the agency doesn’t have enforcement powers, it can issue guidance to avoid accidents.
CSB Interim Executive Authority Kristen Kulinowski in a January interview said “someone is going to have to be harmed by it,” before an HF ban is taken seriously. “That’s a trend worth watching,” she said.
But there might be unintended consequences of instituting a ban on hydrogen fluoride. Scott Lauermann, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said banning HF “ignores the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, meaning that what may work for one facility might not work for another.”
Because refineries are subject to oversight from multiple government agencies, they already “adhere to strict operational standards designed to further mitigate risk and assure safe operations, including API’s recommended practice on the safe operation of HF alkylation units, which is the global safety protocol for these facilities,” Lauermann said in an email.
After the explosion in Philadelphia, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a nine-item serious citation and $132,600 fine to the refinery related to process safety management, a regulation that requires companies holding large quantities of hazardous chemicals to identify and address potential hazards.
A pipe elbow that had corroded to about half the thickness of a credit card ruptured in the refinery’s alkylation unit, and released process fluid, according to the CSB’s latest update on its investigation. While no one died, five workers suffered minor injuries, according to the report.
Safety inspectors found deficiencies in the refinery’s hazard analysis processes and inadequate inspections of equipment for highly hazardous chemicals, among other violations.
A representative from Philadelphia Energy Solutions didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.