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Report urges phaseout of deadly acid

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The Citgo refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board

Oil companies should phase out the use of a highly toxic acid that places millions at risk, a new report from the union representing many refinery workers says.

The report from the United Steelworkers cites data gathered and analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity for a 2011 story that found more than 16 million Americans live in the potential pathway of hydrofluoric acid (HF) if it were released in an accident or a terrorist attack.

The union’s report, drawing on the results of a survey of its local officials at 23 refineries that use the acid, says both regulators and oil companies have failed to ensure that it is handled safely and recommends steps that could protect workers and the public as refineries transition away from HF.

Officials at 18 of the 23 refineries reported a total of 131 accidents or near-misses involving HF during the previous three years.

“There must be a fundamental change in the oil industry’s use of HF,” the report concludes. “[Use of the acid] as it is currently performed in U.S. refineries is a risk too great, but that risk can be reduced and ultimately eliminated.”

The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade group, said Monday it had not yet seen the report. However, it said that "refiners have used HF safely for more than 70 years," and "switching from HF may either not be feasible or could simply serve to just shift risk to other parts of the supply chain."

Oil refiners use HF to boost the octane rating of gasoline.  The acid is an efficient catalyst, but it also has the potential to form a cloud that can travel long distances, sickening or killing those in its path.

The Center’s 2011 examination found that 50 of the nation’s refineries use HF, despite the existence of safer alternatives. The Steelworkers’ report notes that two options – a solid acid catalyst and an ionic liquid alkylation process – would virtually eliminate the risk. Both have been used in pilot projects, but U.S. companies have yet to adopt either.

Recent HF accidents have sparked concern. Federal investigators have twice deployed to the Citgo refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, since 2009 in response to accidents that unleashed the acid. Last December, a worker at the Valero refinery in Memphis, Tenn., died after being exposed to HF.

The Steelworkers’ survey asked teams of local union officials to evaluate their refineries’ handling of HF and their ability to respond to an accident. “[Local officials’] overwhelming verdict is that the current measures preventing and mitigating a major HF release are simply not good enough,” the report found.

Local officials rated a number of key safety measures as deficient. Equipment wasn’t properly maintained. Information about the danger wasn’t conveyed adequately to workers, especially those outside the specific area using HF. Emergency response systems and training were lacking.

The report also recommends stronger oversight by regulators. Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency should better use their authority to police facilities using hazardous substances, the report says.

The report suggests the government address HF and other dangerous substances by requiring companies to consider or use “inherently safer technologies” – substituting less risky substances and processes for more hazardous ones. The issue has been the subject of debate for years, with advocates arguing that such substitutions could be mandated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act or by Congress in the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards legislation.