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Fourth fire this year strikes refinery that relies on toxic acid

Company reports no chemical releases but event underscores risks to nation's aging fuel factories

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 Updated:

The Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

In another sign of ongoing risks facing the refining industry and people who live nearby, a fire broke out Wednesday morning at Sunoco Inc.’s Philadelphia oil refinery. It was the fourth known blaze this year at the plant, which uses a highly toxic acid that threatens more than 1.3 million people in the Philadelphia area.

The fire started at about 5 a.m. in a crude unit, was quickly extinguished, and caused no injuries or off-site chemical releases, Sunoco spokesman Thomas Golembeski said.  Experts and even oil industry trade groups say that fires can be key indicators of larger problems with the handling of hazardous substances at the nation’s aging fuel factories.

The Philadelphia refinery uses hydrofluoric acid, a substance highlighted in an iWatch News-ABC News investigation for its ability to travel great distances in a cloud that could cause sickness or death.

Nationwide, 50 refineries use the acid, despite the availability of a safer alternative.  Companies using significant amounts of the chemical have to file worst-case scenarios with the Environmental Protection Agency, and an iWatch News review of these documents showed that at least 16 million Americans live in the potential path of the acid, known as HF, if it were released in an accident or terrorist attack.

In Philadelphia, Sunoco agreed to switch to a modified form of the acid after local organizations pushed for a change.  Sunoco completed the switch in 2010, but the company’s own worst-case scenario shows that 1.31 million people still could be affected by a release.

An alternative, known as solid acid catalyst, would pose virtually no risk to communities and is now commercially viable, proponents say.  A company preparing to build a new refinery in South Dakota recently said it was planning to use an HF alternative based on solid acid technology.

In 2009, an HF release from the Sunoco refinery, located near downtown Philadelphia, sent 13 contract workers to the hospital.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued more than 35 violations to the refinery during the past five years for alleged problems related to the handling of highly hazardous substances such as HF.  The company is still contesting some of the violations.

In April, a Pennsylvania state legislator held a hearing on the risks posed to workers and the nearby community by the refinery.  The refinery’s general manager, Mike Bukowski, defended the use of HF, saying that “there has not been a single, documented incident of off-site impact or injury to a member of the public.”  Bukowski faced criticism from union officials and State Rep. Maria Donatucci of Philadelphia, who said that Sunoco “must look to safer alternatives.”

Over the past five years, authorities have cited 32 of the 50 refineries using HF for willful, serious, or repeat violations of rules designed to prevent fires, explosions, and chemical releases, according to U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration data analyzed. These “process safety management” standards require companies to conduct inspections, analyze hazards, and plan for emergencies.