Yesterday, July 9, an explosion occured at a Texas oil refinery which resulted in the release of an unspecified, but potentially large amount of hydrogen fluoride. According to the article which appeared in today’s Corpus Christi Caller Times, a seven block area adjacent to the plant was soon evacuated after winds blew the HF gas in its direction. (See article below).
The explosion, which occured at the Ultramar Diamond Shamrock Refinery, helps confirm some of the concerns expressed in a recent report by the Good Neighbor Project for Sustainable Industries which warned of the hazards of using hydrogen fluoride in the oil refining industry .
According to the GNP,
“The unpublicized usage of deadly hydrofluoric acid at half of all refineries is endangering refinery communities…The environmental hazards of HF as used at refineries have to do with the high volumes utilized, the potential for high temperatures and pressures to be involved in a release, and the tendency of HF, once released to the environment, to form deadly gas clouds that do not easily diminish…This makes it an extremely dangerous material to be utilized at refineries in highly populated areas. The danger posed is thought by many experts to be as severe as the accident in Bhopal, India in which thousands were killed at a Union Carbide chemical plant in 1984.”
Ironically, the evacuation occuring in the Texas community is not the only fluoride-induced evacuation mentioned lately in the news. Just over a week ago, Russian television discussed a government-financed resettlement program (apparently the first of its kind) being implemented for victims of hydrogen fluoride emissions emanating from a large aluminum smelter.
“Hydrofluoric acid (HF),” according to a diagram published in today’s Caller times article , “can burn through glass or concrete. Fluoride ions are absorbed through the skin, destroying tissue until they are sequestered in the bones. HF damage causes severe, long-term pain and slow healing burns and can be deadly. Significant delays between exposure and symptom onset may occur.”
For those who would like to learn more about hydrogen fluoride and fluoride air pollution, visit
http://www.fluoridealert.org/hydrogen.fluoride.htm and http://www.fluoridealert.org/f-pollution.htm
Fluoride Action Network
Corpus Christi Caller Times
Tuesday, July 10, 2001
Workers monitor area for gas release
By Sara Lee Fernandez
Emergency workers on Monday worked to keep a refinery’s gaseous release of hydrofluoric acid, which can eat through glass and concrete, from affecting the residents of Three Rivers and the water supply at Choke Canyon State Park.
“HF is a very toxic and corrosive substance,” said Professor Joe Loter of the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s physical and life sciences department. “It’s a gas but it will also condense into a liquid.”
Hydrofluoric acid, also known as hydrogen fluoride, is used by refineries in the alkylation process. The acid is used to maximize the volume of high-octane gasoline that is produced because it is not as volatile as butylenes and propylene, according to information provided by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.
The acid can be poisonous if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
“It’s bad stuff,” said Susan Clewis, team leader for emergency response at the TNRCC’s Corpus Christi office. “It’ll eat your bones, you know it does internal damage and destroys bones.”
Clewis said the TNRCC sent a six-member team. The two biologists on the team went to Choke Canyon Reservoir to monitor the water. The reservoir and Lake Corpus Christi are water sources for Corpus Christi.
“If it’s gotten in the water we can catch it,” she said.
Ed Garaña, water superintendent for the city of Corpus Christi, said the water flow out of Choke Canyon was closed for about eight hours while the biologists for TNRCC checked for contaminants.
“It was just a precautionary measure,” he said.
“The TNRCC felt comfortable, we felt comfortable so we turned the flow back on.”
He said the TNRCC would notify the city of Corpus Christi if any contaminants do show up in the water.
The other members of the team were in the Three Rivers area, monitoring the air and waiting for a chance to get into the Ultramar Diamond Shamrock Refinery once the fire was extinguished, Clewis said.
The fire was still burning itself out late Monday, officials said.
Clewis said the team members monitoring the air did several fence line checks at the refinery.
“They had not detected any levels of HF in the air,” she said.
She said the TNRCC would continue to monitor the investigation into the explosions, fire and the cleanup at the refinery.
Clewis said that if the results of the investigation show that the explosion was not negligent and that company officials acted responsibly in cleaning up, Ultramar Diamond Shamrock probably would not face a fine or restrictions.
It’s going take some time to determine the exact cause,” she said.
Article Discussing Evacuation Effort:
San Antonio Express-News
July 10, 2001
Refinery fire finally out
By Jeanne Russell and Dane Schiller
San Antonio Express-News
THREE RIVERS — The “what if” question has loomed quietly over this small city as surely as its largest employer Ñ the Ultramar Diamond Shamrock oil refinery — juts out of the hard, flat land.
An unexplained explosion Monday that spit black smoke, flames and hydrofluoric acid into the sky left three refinery workers hospitalized and brought residents’ fears to the forefront.
The three, two of whom were contractors, were in serious condition at Christus Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi, said hospital spokeswoman Rita Patrick. A Three Rivers volunteer firefighter was treated at the scene for heat exhaustion.
The stubborn fire that followed the explosion was finally extinguished late Monday, according to the Live Oak County Sheriff’s Department.
The 11:30 a.m. explosion in the plant’s alkylation unit prompted the refinery’s evacuation, then emptied Three Rivers’ storybook main street. Within the hour, it closed the Dairy Queen, the Ford dealership and the Handi-Stop.
People in homes, businesses and churches were told to leave Ñ or decided not to wait to be told.
Authorities could not release an exact number of residents evacuated, but UDS officials said they found hotel rooms for hundreds of people who reside within a seven-block area of the refinery. Live Oak County Fire Marshal James Jungman said about 200 were evacuated.
A decision will be made this morning on whether residents will be able to return to their homes.
Close to 100 refinery workers and area residents took shelter a few miles away at Wolff’s Travel Stop & Restaurant, a truck stop off Interstate 37 where they competed for shade or studied the distant fireworks from tailgates.
“I saw all the smoke and decided it was time to get out of Dodge,” said Rod Crawford, a contractor renovating the old-fashioned Rialto Theater.
One injured worker was identified as Greg Likens of nearby George West. A family member said he was “fine, but being kept overnight for observation.”
Company officials could offer no clear account of what caused the blaze, but said a mix of hydrocarbons and acids ignited in the alkylation unit, where premium gasoline is made.
“It’s not dissimilar to if you have a charcoal grill,” said Paul Eisman, executive vice president of corporate development for UDS.
The three workers were sent to the hospital because of fears they had been exposed to hydrofluoric acid, an extremely corrosive substance, Eisman said. Workers in the unit wear acid suits to prevent exposure to it, he added.
The blast rattled windows at the Pizza Hut, whose customers were among the first to be evacuated.
A five-block evacuation area grew to include eight blocks making up most of downtown, then downwind as far as Choke Canyon State Park.
Forced to knock on doors after a siren malfunctioned, the Three Rivers Police Department moved about 200 people out of the refinery area and downtown, Jungman said.
Looking down Three Rivers’ main street, Harboth Avenue, residents saw a steady plume of smoke from flame sources resembling torches belching against the sky.
Construction worker Jesus Carillo, 25, was at the refinery at the time of the blast and heard the plant alarm sound.
“They told us to get out of town,” he said. “At first we thought it was no big deal, then we sort of got scared with the smoke and the flames and everybody leaving town.”
Rowdy Slaughter, 28, a contractor from Beaumont who was working in the plant about 700 yards from the explosion, said he saw a small vapor release, and later, black smoke.
He said he’s known friends who have worked in alkylation units. “If it gets on you, it searches for calcium,” he said of hydrofluoric acid, “unless you neutralize it.”
The company carried out contingency plans for the release of hydrofluoric acid, part of which involves evacuating residents, said Tara Ford, a UDS spokeswoman.
Ford could not say immediately how much acid was released or how much is stored at the plant. The company planned to open an investigation today.
At nearby Choke Canyon State Park, several campers had to be evacuated from the 385-acre South Shore Unit, one of two camping areas. The 1,100-acre Calliham Unit had about 25 campers who were told to be ready to move if the wind shifted.
It wasn’t clear Monday what impact the explosion and fire had on the environment. The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission asked Ultramar Diamond Shamrock to set up air monitors to test the air, but agency spokesman Dick Lewis said he was unsure whether testing had begun.
He said TNRCC would test the Frio River, which supplies drinking water to Three Rivers and Beeville, to see if it had been contaminated. Three Rivers officials tested the city’s drinking water Monday night and found no problems.
By the time the agency’s emergency response team arrived at the plant, the stormwater outfalls that direct water off the property had been closed. That would contain any liquid, including leaks or spills, on the property, Lewis said.
The dam at Choke Canyon was closed to reduce river flow. If the Frio were contaminated, a weak flow would shorten the distance the pollutants would travel.
“We do not have any confirmed report of any contamination into the water of the rivers yet,” Lewis said, adding that the smoke itself could contain hydrofluoric acid and sulfuric acid, as well as particulates.
A check of the plant’s recent inspection history by TNRCC showed what Lewis called minor violations. The plant incurred an industrial hazardous waste disposal penalty in 1996, and was fined $4,000 in December 1994 and $4,370 in April 2000, both times for air emissions violations.
This spring, the plant was found to have made an industrial hazardous waste disposal violation, also minor in TNRCC’s view, Lewis said.
TNRCC meteorologists did not pick up the smoke plumes on satellite in the late afternoon, Lewis said.
“Obviously those persons who experience any breathing difficulty such as asthma, emphysema or are prone to allergies, they may want to go inside,” he said.
The presence of hydrofluoric acid in the plant concerned environmental groups. Neil Carman, director of the clean air program for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the chemical “probably the single most dangerous material in the refineries.”
Carman, who used to inspect refineries for TNRCC, said of hydrofluoric acid: “It’s the only chemical known to chemistry to eat glass.”
Located between Corpus Christi and San Antonio, Three Rivers was named for its location near the Frio, Nueces and Atascosa rivers. The two largest employers in this town of fewer than 2,000 residents are the refinery and a federal prison.
The prison, eight miles west of the plant, was prepared to evacuate Ñ or provide shelter to city residents, said associate warden Tom Wiemann.
About 25 miles north of Three Rivers, firefighters and deputies in Campbellton went door to door to caution residents to limit their time outdoors in case the smoke carried harmful chemicals, said Chris Llamas, assistant chief of that city’s volunteer fire department.
The refinery is one of two owned by Ultramar Diamond Shamrock in Texas, and is considered a mid-sized facility producing about 95,000 barrels of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other petrochemicals daily from South American crude oil.
It employs 279 people, but fewer than that number are at the plant at any given time, company employees said.
Joe Davila, who runs a welding shop several miles northeast of the refinery, said the roar of fire trucks from Corpus Christi and the buzz of media and public safety helicopters added to the excitement during a frightening day.
Roma Memorial Nursing Home, which sits on a hill east of the plant, did not have to evacuate, said Susan Graves, an administrator there. But after the blast, the staff moved residents to a hall just in case, singing songs to pass the time.
“Three Rivers residents who were evacuated can call toll-free at (888) 422-2524 to coordinate reimbursement for expenditures verified by receipts, UDS officials said.