Fluoride Action Network

Oil Refineries Pose Avoidable Risk To More Than 15 Million In U.S.

Source: US P.I.R.G (Public Interest Research Group) | October 14th, 2003
Industry type: Oil Refineries

Washington, DC – Oil refineries put more than 15 million people across the United States at needless and avoidable risk of injury or death in the event of an accident or deliberate attack, according to a new report released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The report, Needless Risk: Oil Refineries And Hazard Reduction, documents the major threat posed by refineries to surrounding communities, as well as available technologies that could reduce or eliminate the threat.

“It is unacceptable that oil refineries continue to needlessly threaten so many lives in communities across the country,” said U.S. PIRG Environmental Health Associate Meghan Purvis. “Safer technologies exist but industry has failed to take the public out of harm’s way.”

U.S. PIRG focused on the danger of oil refineries that use and store large amounts of hydrofluoric acid onsite. If accidentally released, hydrofluoric acid forms an aerosol cloud over surrounding communities that can cause skin and deep tissue burns, serious bone damage, and death by burns to the skin, tissue or lungs. Symptoms from exposure continue for days if injuries are not treated and may not even appear for up to 24 hours after exposure.

Among the key findings in the report:

* Pennsylvania’s refineries that use hydrofluoric acid have nearly 4 million people living within the vulnerability zones, ranking the state first in terms of number of people at risk because of its use;
* Illinois, with refineries that put 3.6 million people at risk, ranks second; and
* New Jersey ranks third, with refineries that put more than 2.8 million people at risk of injury or death.
* Texas, with 12 facilities using hydrofluoric acid, ranks first for number of facilities.

There is a long history of accidents at oil refineries that use hydrofluoric acid. The largest hydrofluoric acid release in the United States took place in 1987 in Texas City, Texas, when a pipe ruptured at a refinery and released 30,000 pounds of the chemical. More than a thousand people were sent to the hospital as a result of the accident, and 3,000 residents were forced to evacuate their community for three days. An accidental release in 1991 at Southwestern Refining Company in Texas killed two workers and injured five others.

After the September 11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department, General Accounting Office, U.S. Army Surgeon General, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control all issued reports drawing attention to security questions at chemical and industrial facilities. According to these reports, one person could trigger the release of thousands of pounds of hydrofluoric acid. In January 2002, for example, an individual carrying a shotgun broke into a facility owned by Citgo Petroleum Company in Texas, despite Citgo’s claims to have improved security after September 11.

“This report substantiates the need for mandatory vulnerability assessments of refineries,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (N.J.-6), the primary sponsor of the Chemical Security Act. “Too many New Jersey residents are at risk. 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.”

Needless Risk also outlines cost-effective alternatives to hydrofluoric acid at oil refineries. For example, facilities can be built using solid acid catalysts, completely eliminating the risk of a toxic cloud, for nearly the same cost as building a new hydrofluoric acid facility. In addition, existing refineries could switch to sulfuric acid, which poses less of an off-site threat, or to modified hydrofluoric acid, which reduces the severity of the consequences of an accidental release. The report authors pointed to the Valero Energy Corporation, near Los Angeles, which recently agreed to switch to modified hydrofluoric acid in response to public pressure after a 1987 accident.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 120 chemical facilities that each put more than one million people at risk of injury or death because of the hazardous chemicals they use and store onsite. No federal government regulation requires industries to consider implementing inherently safer technology. To protect communities, U.S. PIRG urged Congress to pass legislation introduced earlier this year by Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.) and similar legislation by Rep. Pallone (N.J.) that would require facilities to consider changing their chemicals and processes where available.

“To date, the chemical industry has failed to meet the challenge,” asserted Sal DePasquale, a former member of the American Chemistry Council’s security guidelines’ committee and a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Center for Chemical Process Safety task force on security vulnerability analysis. “More than two years after the horror of September 11, the industry has proffered little more than smoke and mirrors.”

“As the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee debates this issue in the near future, they should remember the millions of people living in the shadow of oil refineries,” added Meghan Purvis, “Congress must pass legislation that requires all chemical facilities change their processes and chemicals where possible, to prevent any accidental releases or attacks.”

U.S. PIRG is the national advocacy office for the state Public Interest Research Groups. State PIRGs are non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organizations.