Fifty-eight U.S. oil refineries, including three in the Los Angeles area, are using a potentially lethal chemical that could result in a Bhopal-like disaster threatening as many as 12 million people across the country, a Washington-based environmental group has warned.
Fred Millar of the Environmental Policy Institute issued the warning three years after the Bhopal disaster in India that resulted in more than 2,800 deaths. He urged local communities and residents to immediately embark on a “crash review” of all facilities in their area that use the chemical, hydrofluoric acid.
The three Southern California refineries identified as using hydrofluoric acid include the Mobil Oil refinery in Torrance that was the scene of a major explosion and fire Nov. 24. Plant officials said they believe there was no major leak of hydrofluoric acid in the explosion. The other Los Angeles-area plants identified in the report are the Golden West Refining Co. of Santa Fe Springs and Union Pacific Resources in Wilmington, formerly known as the Champlin Petroleum Co.
A deadly cloud of methyl isocyanate escaped from the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal on Dec. 3, 1984. Millar said a hydrofluoric acid accident could cause a “similar calamity.”
While not disputing the potential dangers posed by the chemical, the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement released Friday in Washington that hydrofluoric acid has been used in the refining of gasoline since 1942. It is used today to boost the octane content of unleaded gasoline.
“The many companies using hydrofluoric acid have always been aware of the potential hazards of improper exposure or inadvertent release of hydrofluoric acid and have developed strict practices and procedures related to hydrofluoric acid operations,” the API said in a statement relayed by Robert Getts of the Los Angeles-based Western Oil and Gas Assn.
The environmental organization said that based on new tests conducted in the Nevada desert, a 1,000-gallon spill of hydrofluoric acid could be lethal to those living within five miles of the refineries and “immediately dangerous to life and health” as far away as 7 1/2 miles.
The group said there are 477,000 people within five miles of the Mobil refinery, 405,000 within five miles of the Union Pacific Resources refinery and 478,000 people within five miles of the Golden West Refining Co. plant. Millar said residents in 70 communities, including Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston, face similar threats. He said the toxic acid is also used by the Energy Department in the production of nuclear weapons.
Last October more than 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes and more than 100 were taken to hospitals in Texas City, Tex., after a cloud of hydrofluoric acid was accidentally released from a Marathon Oil Co. refinery there. No deaths or serious injuries resulted from the release; most of those hospitalized were treated for minor respiratory, skin and eye irritations.
The release occurred when a crane accidentally dropped parts of an industrial heater it was carrying, shearing a pipe leading into a storage drum containing the hydrofluoric acid.
“To the best of our knowledge,” the American Petroleum Institute said Friday, “the release in Texas City on Oct. 30 was the most significant petroleum-related incident in the United States involving hydrofluoric acid over its 45-year history of use in the petroleum industry.”
Barry Berkett, senior vice president at Golden West Refining Co. in Santa Fe Springs, confirmed Friday that hydrofluoric acid is used there.
“We have very strict control conditions for the limited amount of hydrofluoric acid that enters our refinery,” he said. He added that nearby residents should not be alarmed. Similar assurances were given by Mobil officials.
In March, 1985, seven workers at Golden West were injured, one seriously, when a valve on a truck delivering a shipment of hydrofluoric acid was turned on before a connection to a holding tank was completed.
Torrance Fire Marshal Denny Haas said in an interview Friday that small amounts of hydrofluoric acid were detected leaking at the Mobil refinery Thanksgiving morning, two days after the Nov. 24 explosion.
The explosion involved a 30-foot-tall alkylation unit that Haas said uses hydrofluoric acid in removing impurities from the propane being produced. Asked if hydrofluoric acid was involved in the explosion, Haas said, “I doubt it because the fireball was a vapor cloud. It probably consumed itself right then and there if there was any hydrofluoric acid in the vapor.”
Wyman D. Robb, manager of the Mobil refinery, said Friday, “We certainly recognize the toxicity and danger of hydrofluoric acid. Our employees are trained regularly in handling that material and in emergency procedures in the event of any sort of release.”
Robb said that there have been small releases of hydrofluoric acid but that they were contained within the bounds of the refinery. He said that some employees have suffered from inhaling the vapors or coming into contact with the chemical but that there had been no fatalities.
There was no immediate comment available from owners of the Union Pacific Resources refinery in Wilmington.
The U.S. Department of Energy as well as the petroleum industry, the API said, continue to study spill test results involving hydrofluoric acid to determine whether further precautions are required.
In a telephone interview Friday, Walter Switzer, a combustion toxicologist with the nonprofit Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, told The Times, “It’s dangerous stuff.” He said that the acute effects of inhaling high doses include inhibition of breathing and burning of the eyes. The chemical attacks such organs as the kidneys and the upper respiratory tract.
Millar noted that instead of using hydrofluoric acid, about half of the nation’s oil refineries use sulfuric acid, which he said is “indisputably a considerably safer process to workers and local citizens. . . .”