The families of refinery workers who die on the job generally receive compensation for expenses, pain and suffering. People like José Herrera, their lives forever altered, may have few means of redress for their injuries.
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 nation’s refineries are plagued by recurring equipment failures and sometimes-fatal fires, explosions and chemical releases that in many cases could have been prevented. An easily manipulated regulatory system and resistance from a politically influential industry place workers at risk and endanger nearby communities.
A Texas oil refinery featured in a joint Center for Public Integrity-ABC News investigation into the dangers of hydrofluoric acid has agreed to pay $303,000 to settle pollution violations stemming from a 2009 accident.
Despite decades-old warnings about the potential for mass casualties, 50 refineries across the nation still rely on a toxic chemcial known as hydrofluoric acid, or HF. At least 16 million Americans, many of them unaware of the threat, live in the potential path of HF if it were to be released in an accident or a terrorist attack, according to refinery owners' worst case scenario reports.
Known for its ability to race long distances in a cloud, HF is extremely toxic. It causes lung congestion, inflammation and severe burns of the skin and digestive tract. It attacks the eyes and bones. Experiments in 1986 detected the acid at potentially deadly levels almost two miles from the point of release.
Citing a Center for Public Integrity investigation of BP refineries having the most egregious safety violations in the industry, Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Al Franken want the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to demand stricter worker safety requirements in its negotiations with BP over $90 million in fines.