WASHINGTON – Some U.S. refineries are using an extremely hazardous chemical that threatens the health and safety of millions of people even though there is a cost-effective and less toxic alternative, a consumer advocacy group said Thursday.
The Public Interest Research Group, an advocate of stronger environmental and consumer protection laws, is urging Congress to pass legislation requiring refiners to stop using hydrofluoric acid, which is used to help produce gasoline, in favor of alternative chemicals that would pose less risk if released by accident or during a terrorist attack.
Legislative debate about the security at U.S. refineries and chemical plants will continue after Congress returns from its summer recess. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, head of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, hopes to draft legislation sometime this autumn that would contain some mandatory industrywide security measures.
According to a PIRG report released Thursday, 50 of the country’s 148 refineries use hydrofluoric acid or store it on site. Together, they use and store more than 10 million pounds of the chemical, endangering more than 17 million people who live near the facilities.
“Fully two-thirds of industry uses a safer alternative, and many of the same companies also have plants that are using hydrofluoric acid,” said Meghan Purvis, environmental health advocate at PIRG. ”
U.S. refiners don’t take health and safety lightly and already employ rigorous security measures to guard against attack and accidents, a representative of a top industry group said.
“We have a lot of precautions in the refineries already with the water baths and entrapment procedures to limit releases,” said John Flemy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute.
Purvis said there are several ways refineries could lessen the risks involved in using hydrofluoric acid – like simply using hydrofluoric acid at a lower concentration, which would cost about $7 million per refinery to switch.
“When you put that in the context of the profits that some of these oil companies are making, it’s certainly something that should be done,” she said.
Purvis also said switching to sulfuric acid would also be a way to lower the risks, as would installing technology called “solid acid catalysts” that is currently being tested in some European refineries.
Switching isn’t that simple, Felmy of the API said.
“You have to look at all the implications of what switching means,” Felmy said. “Sometimes the whole structure would have to be rebuilt to do that, which brings up the whole permitting process and people like PIRG would even stop us doing that.”