Fluoride Action Network

More than 26 million are at risk of a Hydrofluoric Acid Release from Oil Refineries

Source: United Steelworkers (USW) | April 16th, 2013 | Press Release
Industry type: Oil Refineries

WASHINGTON, April 16, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — A United Steelworkers (USW) study released today– A Risk Too Great, Hydrofluoric Acid in U.S. Refineries–warns that refiners that use hydrofluoric acid (HF) in their alkylation process to make clean-burning gasoline do not have adequate safety systems in place and are not prepared to handle a release.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate HF as a highly toxic chemical. Exposure to HF can cause deep severe burns and damage the eyes, skin, nose, throat and respiratory system. The fluoride ion enters the body through a burn or by the lungs and can cause internal damage throughout the body. At high enough exposures, HF can kill.

If released into the atmosphere, HF rapidly forms a dense vapor cloud that hovers near land and can travel long distances. HF releases from U.S. refineries range from three to 25 miles, depending on the amount stored. More than 26 million people live within this range, many in urban areas such as Philadelphia, Memphis, Salt Lake City and Houston that are impossible to evacuate quickly should there be a major HF release. No other chemical process puts as many people at risk. (A complete list of locations impacted can be found at the end of this press release.)

Fifty U.S. oil refineries use HF alkylation and on average each stores 212,000 pounds of highly concentrated HF. The USW represents workers in 28 of these refineries, and local unions in 23 of them formed site survey teams and completed the USW’s standardized questionnaire on HF. These 23 refineries put about 12,000 workers and 13 million community members at risk of exposure from an HF release.

Safety experts from inside and outside the USW examined the safety of USW-represented refineries using HF alkylation by reviewing the survey results and data from OSHA, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the industry. Their aim was to see how well these refineries were managing the risk of an HF release.

At three-quarters of the refineries surveyed, a total of 131 HF-related incidents or near misses had occurred the previous three years. Sixteen sites that reported their most serious or potentially serious HF-related events said workers either were or could have been injured, and half said these events could have caused injuries to people in the community.

More than half of the site survey teams reported that 26 out of 32 safety systems were less than very effective in maintaining the integrity of HF alkylation processes and related processes such as storage and transfer, and in handling an HF emergency. A majority of the survey teams rated the six remaining safety systems as being very effective.

Almost two-thirds of the survey teams said their site was less than very prepared in providing emergency personal protective equipment for on-site workers who might need it during a release.

More than half of the survey teams rated on-site and off-site emergency responders and medical personnel as being less than very prepared for an on-site emergency. Sites were assessed to be even less prepared for a release spreading into the local community.

A number of site survey teams commented that staffing levels were too low to ensure the safe operation of alkylation units.

The USW study cites alternatives to using HF and suggests ways existing alkylation units can be made safer. It also says the government could help the process by doing intensive inspections of HF alkylation units.

“The industry has the technology and expertise and money to eliminate HF alkylation entirely,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s oil sector. “It lacks only the will, and if it cannot find the will voluntarily, it must be forced by government action.”

The HF report can be obtained at: http://assets.usw.org/resources/hse/pdf/A-Risk-Too-Great.pdf

The USW is the largest industrial union in North America and has 850,000 members in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. The union represents workers employed in metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining, atomic energy and the service sector.

The following locations are at risk of an HF release:

California– Wilmington, Torrance

Illinois– Robinson, Lemont, Channahon

Indiana– Mt. Vernon

Kansas– El Dorado, Coffeyville, McPherson

Kentucky– Catlettsburg

Minnesota– St. Paul Park

Montana– Billings, Laurel, Great Falls

New Jersey– Paulsboro

New Mexico– Artesia, Jamestown

North Dakota– Mandan

Ohio– Canton

Oklahoma– Ardmore, Ponca City, Wynnewood

Pennsylvania– Trainer, Philadelphia

Tennessee– Memphis

Texas– Port Arthur, Texas City, Corpus Christi, Three Rivers, Borger, Sweeny, Pasadena, Big Spring

Utah– Salt Lake City, North Salt Lake, Woods Cross

Washington– Ferndale

Wisconsin– Superior

Wyoming– Cheyenne, Newcastle

Contact: Lynne Hancock, USW, 615-828-6169, lhancock@usw.org

UNITED STEELWORKERS LOGO / United Steelworkers. (PRNewsFoto/United Steelworkers)