WASHINGTON — Environmentalists and their congressional allies are pushing for legislation that would require oil refineries to stop using a chemical the critics claim threatens the health and safety of residents near the facilities.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group wants Congress to require refinery operators to stop using hydrofluoric acid in favor of alternative chemicals that would pose less risk if released by accident or during a terrorist attack.
Industry officials say they have safety measures in place to prevent accidents involving the chemical, which is used to help refine gasoline.
According to a report released by the group Tuesday, more than 15 million people live near facilities that store large amounts of hydrofluoric acid used in the refining process. Texas has 12 refineries that store hydrofluoric acid, and more than 1 million people live nearby.
The group urged Congress to approve a bill by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and supported by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, that would require federal agencies to identify facilities that pose the greatest risk to area residents, then recommend security and safety improvements.
“If there is a cost-effective, safer technology available to meet the same end product, companies should be using these technologies in order to reduce the risk to the public,” Pallone said.
In 1987, a pressurized storage tank was ruptured, spewing 6,600 gallons of hydrofluoric acid from the Marathon Petroleum Co. facility in Texas City. About 1,200 people were hospitalized with lung and skin disorders, and 3,000 were evacuated.
An accident occurred in 1991 at Southwestern Refining Co. in Corpus Christi, where two workers were killed and five others were injured.
“Accidents do happen at refineries, and a deliberate attack is possible,” said Meghan Purvis, a spokeswoman for the Public Interest Research Group, a nonpartisan advocate of stronger environmental and consumer protection laws.
Legislation similar to Pallone’s bill has failed in past congressional sessions because of opposition from the oil industry. So far this year, House Energy Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., has refused requests to schedule a hearing on Pallone’s bill.
Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, a trade organization representing the oil and gas industry, said federal regulation of the use of hydrofluoric acid is not needed.
“We have difficulty in believing that federal regulation should displace all the expertise and experience in actual operation of these facilities that the industry has,” Slaughter said.
To minimize chances of leaks, some plants use advanced spray technology to decrease any harmful effects of an accidental release, Slaughter said. In addition, chemical agents are added to hydrofluoric acid in the refining process that would further reduce health risks, he said.
“Unfortunately, they are trying to achieve an agenda by creating unnecessary fear among the American public,” Slaughter said of the Public Interest Research Group. “We worry about counterproductive regulatory attempts that could be fueled by allegations such as this.”
Slaughter said the industry is working with the Department of Homeland Security, as well as state and local officials to maximize security at refining and chemical facilities.