Hydrogen fluoride could be America’s Bhopal gas, according to an environmental group and an Energy Department physicist studying the behavior of hazardous chemicals when they are spilled.
The pair on Thursday likened the threat posed by the chemical to that of methyl isocyanate, which leaked from Union Carbide’s Bhopal, India, plant in December 1984 and killed more than 2,000 people.
A recent hydrogen fluoride spill in Texas “came within a hair’s breadth” of an accident “that could have killed thousands of people,” said the physicist, Ronald Koopman, in a telephone interview from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco.
The Environmental Policy Institute said the widely used chemical, also known as hydrofluoric acid, is 100 times more dangerous than previously thought.
Tests supervised by Koopman in the Nevada desert in July 1986 on behalf of Amoco Corp. showed that 100 percent of a 1,000 gallon test spill was quickly carried away on the wind, institute specialist Fred Millar said at a news conference.
That means such a spill could kill people breathing the fumes five miles away, and seriously injure them 7 1/2 miles away, he said.
Millar said the evacuation distance for a spill, now recommended by the Transportation Department to be an area downwind 1.1 miles long by 0.7 miles wide, should be a downwind semicircle of 7 1/2 miles radius _ an area more than 100 times larger.
Previously, experts thought that 80 percent of a large hydrogen fluoride spill would remain in a puddle, evaporating slowly, he said. But in Nevada 20 percent left as a gas and 80 percent blew away as a ground-hugging mist of fine aerosol particles.
On Oct. 30 at the Marathon Corp. refinery in Texas City, Texas, a crane dropped equipment on a large hydrogen fluoride tank, breaking a pipe on top that permitted gas to escape.
Three thousand people were evacuated from their homes, some for several days.
If piping at the side or bottom of the tank carrying liquid hydrogen fluoride had been broken “and liquid had gushed out of this, we would have had our Bhopal,” said Millar.
Millar said Amoco, operator of one of Texas City’s three refineries, had quickly spread word of the Nevada test findings throughout the petroleum industry, but those results had been “withheld from Texas City local emergency response officials, fire fighters, health departments, workers and their union representatives, as well as community residents,” and as a result, the evacuation was badly handled.
He said 70,000 people should have been moved.
Amoco spokesman Ralph Stow said the company had briefed Texas City officials and refinery employees on the Nevada results, and was beefing up safety procedures in all its refineries where the chemical is used.
Mike Hildebrand, fire and safety director for the American Petroleum Institute, said of Millar’s accusation that companies had withheld information, “I think that’s pushing it. … It takes a year to get the analysis done and down on paper.”
The institute is planning two conferences in April on hydrogen fluoride, he said.
A new federal law requires companies to inform local officials by next March of what chemicals they handle.
Millar said the institute, a Washington-based advocacy organization, was writing local officials in 70 cities with hydrogen fluoride-using plants urging them to undertake a “strong review” of emergency plans and handling of the chemical, including the possible subsititution of sulfuric acid in petroleum refining.
About half the nation’s refineries use sulfuric acid, Millar said.
Millions of pounds of hydrogen fluoride are used every year. Refiners use it as a catalyst in the reactions that add hydrocarbon branch chains to molecules to give gasoline higher octane.
It is also used to make uranium hexaflouride, the compound of uranium used when it is enriched to make reactor fuel; in metalworking and textile manufacture; and as a raw material in making chlorofluorocarbon compounds used as solvents, refrigerants and foam blowing agents. Two-thirds goes to chlorofluorocarbons, production of which must be cut in half by 1998 under an international agreement to protect the ozone layer.
Koopman said he knew of no fatalities from hydrogen fluoride spills, but had been told by Amoco of two major spills at an Australian refinery at Ampol that blew out to sea while workers climbed atop distillation towers to let the cloud pass beneath them.