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Equipment failure at refinery leads to toxic HF release

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A hydrofluoric acid leak from an oil refinery in Ohio last week sent a worker to the hospital and required the use of a “water cannon” to disperse the poisonous gas, underscoring the potentially perilous nature of a chemical used at 50 refineries across the country.

The Marathon Oil Corp. refinery in Canton, Ohio, has estimated in a report to the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center that 145 pounds of the acid, known as HF, escaped during the Feb. 23 incident. The company blamed equipment failure. Workers were evacuated.

Remedial steps included “flooding the area with water,” according to the company’s report to the response center.

The refining industry is experiencing a rash of fires, explosions and mechanical breakdowns, putting workers at risk. Such incidents may signify weaknesses that could lead to a calamity. Over the last five years, the Ohio refinery has been cited more often than all but three other refineries using HF for failing to manage hazardous processes.

HF is used as a catalyst to make high-octane gasoline, despite the existence of a safer alternative and warnings about the chemical’s extreme toxicity and its ability to travel long distances in a cloud. The Center for Public Integrity and ABC News reported last week that at least 16 million Americans live in the potential path of an HF release.

Marathon spokesman Shane Pochard said Monday that the leak in Canton occurred as the refinery was shutting down its HF unit for planned maintenance.

“One employee was transported to the hospital as a precautionary measure,” Pochard said, adding that the company was still trying to determine whether any HF got into the surrounding community.

“All of our [HF] mitigation systems worked as required,” he said.

According to a report filed by Marathon with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, up to 238,000 pounds of HF could be released from the Canton refinery in a worst-case scenario, affecting as many as 940,000 people.

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration data show that the Canton refinery paid a $321,500 fine for 45 violations uncovered by OSHA during a 2007 inspection. Thirty-one of the 45 were violations of OSHA’s process safety management rule, which requires companies that manufacture or use hazardous chemicals to take steps to prevent fires, explosions and chemical releases.

Of the 50 refineries that use HF, only three — the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, the Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia and the Wynnewood Refining Co.’s refinery in Wynnewood, Okla. — have had more process safety infractions than Marathon-Canton in the past five years.

Pochard said Marathon “responded to [the 2007] inspection appropriately.”

Asked if the company is considering switching from HF to a safer catalyst, as environmentalists and union leaders have advocated, Pochard said, “It’s something we have to evaluate internally. We are always looking at safer alternatives in all aspects of our business.”