Hazardous chemicals at BP Amoco’s Texas City refinery exploded early Wednesday afternoon, March 23, killing 14 and injuring over 100. The massive explosion also destroyed buildings and vehicles, and shook residents’ homes up to five miles away.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time this facility has released hazardous chemicals into the community. Over the course of the last six years, BP Amoco’s Texas City facility has reported over 100 incidents to the National Response Center (NRC). The NRC tracks unverified initial reports of spills, releases and other accidents ranging from minor to serious.
According to records at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the accident could have been much worse. BP Amoco has reported to EPA that it stores 800,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid onsite at its Texas City facility. The company has estimated that over half a million people live within the facility’s 25 mile ‘vulnerability zone.’ Should an accident or explosion cause the full release of this toxic chemical, then thousands could be injured or killed.
Exposure to hydrofluoric acid results in devastating burns, and inhalation of fumes can cause symptoms ranging from severe throat irritation to pulmonary edema. With 12 refineries using hydrofluoric acid, Texas has more than any state, putting millions of people at risk.
However, oil refineries can replace hydrofluoric acid with safer chemicals. Many other refineries already use sulfuric acid, which is much safer and more cost effective than hydrofluoric acid. This switch significantly reduces the public health and safety consequences of an accident and as a result, diminishes the appeal of refineries as terrorist targets.
This raises important and tough questions. Could the devastating effects of this accident have been lessened even before the accident occurred? Was there a safer technology or chemical that BP Amoco could have been using at the facility? Unfortunately, few in the federal government are asking these tough questions. Even though the EPA has identified more than 120 facilities around the country that each put more than one million people at risk from the release of hazardous chemicals, the federal government has not developed any policies to reduce these risks through safer technology where practical.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the authority to mandate that facilities substitute safer chemicals and processes where possible. But the agency has refused to act. Congress has been presented with chemical security legislation by Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) that would require facilities to evaluate and report on safer technology options. But Congress has refused to pass the legislation.
Perhaps now, in the aftermath of this tragic and costly accident, the administration and Congress will finally take action to reduce the chemical risks that continues to place millions of Americans in jeopardy everyday.
For more information, please contact George Sorvalis (202) 234-8494 or Sorvalis@ombwatch.org