On the afternoon of Sept. 20, 1994, several mysterious yellow clouds floated eerily above the treetops in Southwest Philadelphia. Local residents remember looking up at the sky with a marked sense of fear.
“We figured it had come from the refinery, and we had no idea whether the stuff was dangerous,” recalls Al Caporali, who lives in the community adjacent to the Sunoco Oil refinery.
It turned out that the cloud had formed after silica dust escaped from an aging catalytic cracker at the plant, which then went by the name Sun Oil Co. While the particles from this oily powder scratched eyes and throats, health officials assured the public that it posed no long-term health risks.
Still, by the time this scare occurred, Caporali and his neighbors were thoroughly fed up with breathing the black smoke that routinely belched from the refinery stacks. And their noses could barely tolerate the stench of sulfur dioxide that permeated the air.
“I had to hang dark chocolate curtains in my windows to block the flares shining into my house from the refinery,” says Joanne Rossi, another longtime community homeowner. “The light was that bright.”
In mid-1995 a coalition of Southwest Philadelphia residents and environmental activists finally tried to force Sun Oil Co. to be a better neighbor. So they did something quintessentially American: They sued.
The Community/Labor Refinery Tracking Committee (CLRTC)-a coalition of 18 organizations, including refinery workers, community residents and environmentalists-filed a lawsuit against the refinery in U.S. District Court. During 30 months of settlement negotiations, activists lobbied for and won dozens of upgrades at the plant.
Ultimately, Sun Oil agreed to spend $5 million to install new air pollution controls and to slash sulfur dioxide releases. The company coughed up another $150,000 to fund environmental projects in the community such as bike paths and tree plantings. Sun Oil purchased a $200,000 warning system that would notify residents in the event of an accident. Finally, the company paid the city $150,000 in penalties for violating clean air standards.
However, Sun Oil refused to go along with at least one demand from CLRTC members. When activists asked refinery officials to phase out the use of hydrogen fluoride (HF)-a chemical that acts as a catalyst to boost the production of high-octane gasoline-they balked.
Hundreds of nasty chemicals are used in the petroleum refining process. Even so, HF stands out as perhaps the deadliest. The specter of an accidental release has worried community members for nearly a decade. But since 9/11 the threat of terrorism has convinced them of an even greater urgency to phase out HF at the Southwest Philly refinery.
This week Clean Water Fund and the CLRTC are launching a campaign urging Sunoco to switch to what they believe is a safer “modified” version of HF. More than 30 organizations have signed on to the effort, and Clean Water Fund canvassers have already collected at least 500 signatures on a petition calling for Sunoco to phase out traditional HF.
“We could go to City Council and push through an ordinance banning HF,” says Christine Knapp, program organizer for the Clean Water Fund. “But we thought we’d try the soft approach first.”
When accidentally released, HF forms a dense, ground-hugging cloud of lethal gas that can travel for 5 miles before dissipating. Currently, Sunoco uses and stores 355,000 pounds of HF at its Southwest Philly refinery, according to a Risk Management Plan the company filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in August.
The plan cites a gas release of HF as Sunoco’s “worst-case scenario” involving toxics at the Philadelphia refinery. About 4.4 million people live within a 25-mile radius of the plant, the document notes.
Inhalation of the chemical can be lethal. Nonfatal effects of HF exposure include severe pain and slow-healing burns. The substance may cause skin and eye damage, and even heart failure. It can turn bones to jelly and eat away at lungs.
The Sunoco plant-which sits on 1,000 acres on the east bank of the Schuylkill River-has more people living in its “vulnerability zone” than any other single facility using HF in the nation, according to an October 2003 report published by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Of the 153 petroleum refineries currently operating in the United States, just 51 continue to use HF-down from about 100 refineries using the substance less than a decade ago.
In 1986 Amoco sponsored field tests to determine what might happen if HF accidentally leaked from a refinery then under construction in Texas City, Texas. The test release was relatively small-1,000 gallons in two minutes at a temperature and pressure that mimicked refinery conditions. Scientist Ron Koopman conducted the $2 million experiments in the southern Nevada desert. When Koopman unscrewed the valve, escaping HF traveled downwind at a lethal level for more than 5 miles.
“Amoco was extremely surprised that the consequences were so severe,” says Koopman, who is now retired and living in California.
Amoco officials didn’t immediately notify public safety or regulatory officials about the test results, and the company certainly didn’t inform the press. Amoco first convened a meeting with other refineries that used HF. The consortium then hired Koopman to test whether water cannons or water curtains would be capable of knocking out an HF cloud.
Koopman and several colleagues released HF in a wind tunnel and sprayed the cloud with a high-pressure curtain of water. They determined that an HF cloud dissipates only when showered with 40 times its weight in water.
A catastrophe caused by a major HF leak could easily rival devastation in the wake of a December 1984 poison gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, Koopman asserts. Considered the worst ever chemical industry accident, a highly toxic cloud immediately killed 2,000 people and sickened more than 10,000.
It’s “only luck” that saved the lives of hundreds of people living near a Marathon Oil plant in Texas City in 1987, Koopman says. A crane dropped equipment on a pipe there, allowing 53,200 pounds of HF to
An eyewitness described the vapor cloud as “a silver blanket creeping along the ground at knee height.” A light breeze carried the plume to an adjacent community, forcing the evacuation of several thousand people.
Exposure to HF sent more than 1,000 victims to the hospital, where they were treated for respiratory problems and acid burns. The chemical cloud defoliated trees for miles along its route.
“The evacuation plan was a complete fiasco,” Koopman says. “Safety officials actually sent people to a shelter in the path of the HF cloud.”
A handful of less serious HF accidents have occurred in the United States. In 1994 an estimated 930 pounds of HF spewed from the alkylation unit of the Mapco Petroleum plant in Memphis, Tenn. The Clark Oil refinery near Chicago had two HF releases between 1994 and 1996-one of which sickened students at a high school a half-mile away.
Closer to home, a Norfolk Southern freight train hauling HF derailed in East Deer Township in Western Pennsylvania on Jan. 31. Fortuitously, a leaking car tipped over into the Allegheny River, diluting the chemical. Although only a small amount of HF escaped into the air, safety officials evacuated about 200 nearby residents.
A March 23 explosion at BP Amoco’s Texas City refinery killed 14 people and injured more than 100. The huge blast also destroyed buildings and vehicles, and shook homes up to 5 miles away. Even so, the accident could’ve been far worse because the facility stores 800,000 pounds of HF.
“Should an accident or explosion cause the full release of this toxic chemical, thousands could be injured or killed,” cautions George Sorvalis, outreach associate for OMB Watch, a national government watchdog organization.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the authority to mandate that facilities substitute safer chemicals and processes where possible, Sorvalis notes. “But the agency has refused to act.”
Even back when CLRTC members began negotiating the consent decree with Sunoco 10 years ago, their biggest fear was an accidental HF leak.
“We’ve always been concerned about HF,” says Caporali, vice president of the CLRTC, which formed in 1992. “But since 9/11, the threat of a terrorist attack doubles the dangers. A determined terrorist could hijack a vehicle and drive it into the plant or crash an airplane into it. It would be nice if Sunoco woke up and decided to stop using HF.”
The southwest Philly refinery is near Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia International Airport and the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge-not to mention blocks of homes, schools and offices.
“Depending on which way the wind blows, an HF release could affect Center City, South Jersey and Delaware,” Caporali says. “This is why we feel so strongly about it.”
It is “quite reasonable” to point to HF as a significant hazard within the oil refining industry, Koopman agrees. “What if a tank is targeted by terrorists, and it blew a hole? How many people could be hurt by that chemical release?”
Petro facilities throughout the world are consistent terrorism targets because of their vulnerability, their importance to the economy, and the large volumes of toxic chemicals stored onsite.
Terrorists seek out any “undefined target of opportunity” that could cause a “substantial” death toll, Koopman adds. “It is imperative for refineries to improve security.”
While negotiating the lawsuit settlement in 1996 and 1997, CLRTC members urged Sunoco to switch from HF to sulfuric acid-the only alternative available at the time. Both substances serve as catalysts in the alkylation process-alkylates in high-octane gas improve mileage and reduce dirty emissions. It would be expensive for Sunoco to install equipment needed to burn sulfuric acid, while the risk reduction would be minimal.
(Nearly two-thirds of refineries use sulfuric acid instead of HF. When accidentally released, sulfuric acid doesn’t form a toxic aerosol cloud. The liquid is far easier to contain, and the chances of exposing people outside the refinery are small. But sulfuric acid is no free ride either. It must be transported in and out of the refinery, which creates a whole other set of dangers. By contrast, HF doesn’t need to be regenerated offsite.)
But technological advances have led to a substitute that activists claim is both affordable and considerably safer. Two refineries in California recently began using “modified HF,” which contains an additive that reduces aerosol formation by 60 to 90 percent in the event of a leak. The four other Southern California refineries that handle HF recently entered into an agreement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to voluntarily switch to modified HF.
This turn of events prompted activists to again raise the issue of HF dangers with Sunoco last year.
“While we were pleased to learn that the Sunoco Philadelphia refinery has added more security at its plant, we are alarmed at the continued use and storage of hydrogen fluoride,” a Feb. 2, 2004, letter to Sunoco president John Drosdick reads. It goes on to ask that Sunoco begin using modified HF within the next two years.
John McCann, public affairs manager for the refinery, responded to the request in a letter dated May 7, 2004. He wrote that Sunoco doesn’t consider modified HF a “proven and viable alternative.”
McCann echoed the sentiment during a face-to-face meeting with activists about a month later, Knapp of the Clean Water Fund says.
Sunoco insists it “thoroughly” assesses emerging technologies, and that modified HF is untested. McCann asserts that Sunoco takes its “obligations to the public very seriously,” but there isn’t “adequate statistical evidence” to convince the company that new technology will reduce existing risks without introducing new ones.
“As refineries that are using modified HF issue papers about the process, I’m sure we could get comfortable with the data,” McCann says. “But from Sunoco’s perspective, we’re not yet comfortable.”
In addition, modified HF may not be as efficient as traditional HF, says Scott Berger, director of the Center for Chemical Process Safety. “The worst-case scenario improves when modified HF is used, but the tradeoff is higher energy consumption,” he says.
Berger also agrees with McCann’s argument that improving the safety for one process may inadvertently increase the risks of another. “That’s why we talk about inherently safer technologies-because nothing is ever perfectly safe,” he notes.
But George Sorvalis of OMB Watch says industries often use the excuse of “unproven technology” to avoid investing in pricey upgrades.
“Companies are looking at their capital expenses, and they don’t want to make that initial investment, even for equipment that could save money over time,” Sorvalis says.
The Clean Water Fund estimates the cost of installing a modified HF system at between $20 and $30 million, depending on the refinery.
“Sunoco can afford the conversion,” community activist Al Caporali contends, “but the company claims that enough safeguards are engineered into the storage tanks that it can ensure the safety of residents and employees.”
Sunoco generated revenues of $17.9 billion and a net income of $312 million in 2003, according to the company’s annual report.
However, the profit margin may not be wide enough to justify expensive upgrades, according to the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA).
“Companies run refineries to make money, and they’re not going to invest in a capital project that doesn’t have much economic return,” says Jeff Hazle, technical director for NPRA.
About three years ago the Sunoco refinery installed what it calls “a rapid de-inventory system.” If the HF tank were to spring a leak, workers could empty its entire contents into an adjacent container in eight to 10 minutes, McCann says.
“We did this voluntarily,” he stresses. “We’ve never had a release from this unit. But we’re constantly cleaning, restoring, replacing and upgrading technology as we go.”
Knapp says Sunoco’s safety plan simply “isn’t good enough.”
“How much gas can escape into the air in eight minutes?” Knapp questions. “Plus, this plan does nothing to address explosions.”
The refinery’s primary safety measure is employee training, McCann counters, and Sunoco carefully trains every worker to “ensure the safety of people working in the refinery and living in the community.”
Federal regulators-from the EPA and Congress to the Department of Homeland Security-have debated implementing tougher federal standards for highly dangerous toxics such as HF. But the powerful chemical and petroleum industries have put the kibosh on past efforts.
“This administration is in bed with industry of all sorts,” asserts Koopman, the scientist who tested HF releases. “The chemical industry is especially powerful. It has defeated all attempts at regulation by pointing to its impressive safety record.”
Spreading goodwill in the form of cash probably helps as well.
Sunoco Inc. gave $1,400 to President Bush’s first campaign, and kicked in $333,761 for his 2000 inauguration. During the 2002 election cycle Sunoco contributed $36,710 to the Republican National Committee. The company wrote checks totaling $9,550 in support of Bush’s 2004 reelection bid.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) spent nearly $6.8 million lobbying politicians between Jan. 1, 2002, and June 30, 2004, according to an analysis by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. ACC member companies dished out nearly $56 million for lobbying efforts during this same time period.
Members of the American Petroleum Institute (API) are no strangers to Capitol Hill either. Between 2002 and June 30, 2004, API member companies contributed about $33 million to political candidates, based on campaign finance records.
In January U.S. Sen. John Corzine announced plans to reintroduce the Chemical Plant Security Act, which would toughen security standards at chemical facilities throughout the country. Corzine, a Democrat from New Jersey, characterizes chemical facilities as “a widely recognized homeland security problem.”
He sponsored a bill last session, but Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chair James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, blocked it from a floor vote. Corzine’s measure would have required the EPA to identify “high priority” chemical facilities that contain large quantities of toxic or flammable chemicals. Once designated a high priority, a plant would need to assess its vulnerability and develop plans for avoiding a hazard-including the use of safer chemicals.
NPRA adamantly opposed Corzine’s measure, arguing that security isn’t part of the EPA’s mission.
“NPRA and its members strongly believe that federal security efforts must be conducted by experienced organizations and not delegated to other branches of government that lack law enforcement and intelligence capabilities and security resources,” a position paper floated by the association contends.
The NPRA asserts that refineries are already “heavily engaged” in maintaining and enhancing facility security.
But President Bush’s former deputy homeland security adviser Richard Falkenrath would likely disagree. During testimony before the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee Jan. 26, he called industrial chemicals “acutely vulnerable and almost uniquely dangerous.”
“These poorly secured chemicals, which in some cases are identical to the chemical weapons used in World War I, are routinely present in vast, multi-ton quantities adjacent to or in the midst of many dense population centers,” testified Falkenrath, who resigned from his government post in May 2004 and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“Toxic-by-inhalation industrial chemicals present a mass-casualty terrorist potential rivaled only by improvised nuclear devices, certain acts of bioterrorism and the collapse of large occupied buildings,” he cautioned legislators.
Sunoco spokesperson John McCann says terrorism is an “ongoing concern” for the refinery, and that it takes “every imaginable step” to prevent an attack. “Every employee has a duty and a responsibility to maintain a keen awareness of unusual events or people both inside and outside the facility,” he says.
During 2003 the federal Department of Homeland Security awarded Sunoco 14 port security grants totaling $4.3 million. The company is using the money to shore up security at waterfront plants, like the one in Philadelphia, according to the company’s 2003 annual safety report.
Homeland security consultants are now busy convincing Philadelphia City Council members to introduce legislation that would ban railcars carrying HF and similar explosive materials from passing through Philadelphia.
CSX Transportation routinely hauls railcars full of HF and other toxic chemicals through the city, says Fred Millar, a consultant on homeland security and hazardous materials transportation.
“For CSX to bring poison gas cargos through Philadelphia is insane,” Millar says. “HF and chlorine are the biggest potential chemical offenders, and people living in Philadelphia have no idea … This is a blind spot in homeland security.”
Terrorists could cause a derailment, place a bomb on the tracks or even leap atop a rail car and unscrew a valve, allowing poison fumes to escape.
Millar says he’s talking to members of Philadelphia City Council who are “very worried” about toxic chemicals traversing the CSX tracks that run parallel to the Schuylkill River.
Ellen Berkowitz, a legislative aide to Councilman David Cohen, acknowledges that her boss is contemplating sponsoring a bill that would ban CSX from transporting hazardous substances through the city.
“It’s an important public safety issue,” says Berkowitz, who notes that CSX often leaves trains-packed with “who knows what”-parked near Schuylkill River Park at 25th and Locust streets.
Pushing legislation in Philadelphia is actually plan B for security activists.
A new Washington, D.C., law prohibits the shipment of hazardous materials on the 37 miles of rail lines in the district. D.C. officials justify the ban by arguing that the nation’s capital is the most likely target for terrorist attacks. The new law requires trains to be rerouted through less densely populated towns.
But CSX is suing to overturn the ban, contending that only the federal government maintains authority to regulate rail security, and that such restrictions could cripple the nation’s rail transportation system. The U.S. Justice Department is in CSX’s camp.
The law was supposed to take effect last week. But D.C. officials agreed to hold off enforcement until at least April 20 while lawyers huddle for settlement talks.
Philadelphia is on the same CSX rail line as Washington, so passing a ban here would effectively keep hazmats away from the U.S. capitol as well.
“We’re looking to Philadelphia in case the D.C. ordinance gets knocked down,” Millar says.
Sunoco’s Southwest Philadelphia refinery has been part of the city’s landscape for generations. The Atlantic Refining Co. founded half of the facility way back in 1866. Gulf Oil opened an adjacent plant in 1910.
CLRTC president Joanne Rossi remembers driving by the refineries at night as a little girl. Perched in the backseat of her family’s car, Rossi was impressed with the pretty glowing lights and soaring stacks.
When she bought her Southwest Philly home in 1978, Rossi was excited to be living in what felt like the suburbs. “Most of these houses have beautiful lawns,” she boasts. “There’s still a vegetable farm here.”
But soon after moving to Southwest Philly 27 years ago, Rossi’s notions about the petro industry changed dramatically.
“For the first time I learned about daily accidents and flares at the refinery,” she says. “It blew my mind that developers built homes so close by.”
Given that these homes were built, Rossi believes it’s past time for Sunoco to stop using HF. “It really is a deadly substance,” she says. “God forbid should something happen.”
Full Court Press
A lawsuit filed by a community group last week accuses Sunoco of violating pollution limits allowed under state and federal air-quality laws, as well as exceeding pollution caps written into refinery permits.
Neighbors of the Southwest Philadelphia refinery contend that they’re regularly subjected to plumes of black smoke and foul odors. Plaintiffs are seeking fines and major upgrades to the facility to eliminate illegal air emissions.
Sunoco spokesperson Gerald Davis says the company can’t comment on details of the lawsuit. “But at Sunoco, we’re proud of recent progress in improving our environmental record,” he says.
The April 11 action marks the second time the Community/Labor Refinery Tracking Committee (CLRTC)-a coalition of nearby residents, environmentalists and refinery workers-has sued Sunoco. The first suit resulted in a 1997 consent decree that required the company to spend $5.5 million to fund pollution control upgrades and environmental projects in the community, as well as to pay city fines.
“We’re filing this suit because Sunoco has violated environmental regulations dozens of times in the past five years, yet it has not faced punishment or fixed the problem,” says CLRTC president Joanne Rossi.
Since 2000 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been in settlement talks with Sunoco for environmental violations at its five domestic refineries. (In addition to the Philly plant, there are two others in this region: one in Marcus Hook, Delaware County, and the other in West Deptford, Gloucester County, N.J.) CLRTC members say they’re tired of biding their time while federal regulators negotiate an agreement.
Sunoco’s Davis says he hopes the lawsuit won’t interfere with EPA negotiations.
“We regret CLRTC decided to pursue a costly litigation strategy involving our Philadelphia refinery,” he says. “These are complex matters, and it takes time to negotiate them.”
EPA spokesperson John Millett declined to comment on ongoing discussions with Sunoco. However, more than 50 percent of domestic refining capacity is currently covered by settlements under EPA’s Petroleum Refinery Initiative.
“These settlements, when fully implemented, will reduce emissions of air pollutants by approximately 240,000 tons per year at 57 refineries in 26 states,” Millett says.
The CLRTC suit details more than 1,000 alleged abuses at the refinery, including illegal releases of carcinogens such as benzene. It charges Sunoco with releasing thousands of pounds of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide at a time as a result of equipment malfunctions. It also accuses the refinery of “flaring” excess gases, a process CLRTC says sends harmful smoke plumes into the surrounding community.
The lawsuit also seeks compensation for a major unplanned shutdown at the fluidized catalytic cracking unit that caused a release to the community of “catalyst”-super-fine particles that can threaten health.
Nationwide, Sunoco’s air-permit violations increased by 34 percent during 2003 compared to the previous year, according to the company’s 2003 annual safety report. “Approximately 71 percent of the air exceedances were the result of an unplanned shutdown of sulfur processing equipment at the Philadelphia refinery,” the report states.
Even so, Davis notes that the International Standards Organization recently certified that Sunoco meets the highest environmental standards.
The Mid-Atlantic Environmental Law Center is representing plaintiffs in the suit. (G.S.)
Even as gasoline prices inch toward $2.50 a gallon, Americans rev up their SUVs and Hummers. Ten years ago America’s refineries were running at about 70 percent capacity. Now the typical refinery operates at 90 percent capacity.
Sunoco’s Southwest Philly plant is capable of processing 333,000 barrels of crude oil daily, according to the company. Even so, the balance between oil supply and demand is slimmer than ever, energy analysts contend. Global demand for oil is taxing refineries throughout the nation-and increasing the potential for future accidents. As it stands, explosions and fires are common at petroleum refineries, safety experts say. “The problem with refineries is that they tend to blow up a lot,” notes Dr. Ron Koopman, a retired scientist who conducted groundbreaking experiments on the refining process during the mid-’80s.
Over the past five years a handful of accidental chemical releases at Sunoco have required medical treatment or caused “significant” property damage onsite, according to Sunoco’s Risk Management Plan filed with the EPA in August.
On Jan. 18, 2003 low fuel gas pressure forced the flame in a heater to blow out. The resulting explosion and fire ultimately caused $1.1 million in property damage at the refinery.
On June 30, 2000 piping between two exchangers released a combination of hydrogen and hydrocarbon vapor. A vapor cloud explosion and fire caused $4.5 million in property damage.
Several months later, on Dec. 23, 2000, a hydrogen compressor malfunctioned and released a flammable mixture of hydrogen and light hydrocarbons. Although no one was injured, the explosion caused $2.4 million in damage.
Over the years a few minor accidents at the Sunoco refinery involved hydrogen fluoride (HF), a highly toxic chemical activists are now pushing Sunoco to phase out.
As operators attempted to remove a valve in an empty HF system on Feb. 2, 2000, the chemical sprayed one worker in the face. “The operator was immediately treated and sent to the hospital, where he was admitted overnight for observation,” the risk management report states.
Between 1995 and 1997 four separate 1-pound releases of HF each injured one worker at the refinery, according to an October 2003 study published by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. (G.S.)