IMPACT: In Philadelphia, plea for safer alternative at refinery

No 'off-site impact' from clouds of toxic acid, Sunoco says — to skepticism

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The Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA – The general manager of the Sunoco oil refinery here on Thursday defended his company’s decision to keep using an extremely toxic, cloud-forming acid, saying that in 40 years “there has not been a single, documented incident of off-site impact or injury to a member of the public.”

Testifying at a legislative hearing on risks posed to workers and neighborhoods by hydrofluoric acid, or HF, the manager, Mike Bukowski, did not find a sympathetic audience, even after explaining that Sunoco had spent $125 million to switch to a modified form of the acid, less likely than standard HF to travel long distances if discharged during an accident.

Jim Savage, a Sunoco operator and union official, said, “We don’t want a less deadly form of HF in the refineries. We want HF out of the refineries.”

The hearing, convened by the Democratic Policy Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, was prompted by a recent iWatch News-ABC News investigation revealing that the 125-year-old Sunoco complex, located in densely populated South Philadelphia, is among 50 U.S. refineries that use HF to make high-octane gasoline despite a rash of accidents and near-misses involving the chemical and the availability of safer substitutes.

Worst-case scenarios filed by oil companies with the Environmental Protection Agency show that at least 16 million Americans are at risk of injury or death from potential HF releases, the investigation found.

Politicians at the field hearing on the University of Pennsylvania campus were careful to acknowledge the economic benefits of the refinery but urged ending reliance on HF.

State Rep. Maria Donatucci of Philadelphia said that Sunoco “must look to safer alternatives.”

Diane Heminway, a health and safety specialist with the United Steelworkers union, which represents about 600 workers at the Sunoco refinery, testified that HF is “one of the most dangerous chemicals being used on a commercial scale.”

Heminway criticized Sunoco and other companies for failing to seriously consider a more benign product called solid acid catalyst.

“The truth is, we have been nothing short of lucky that a large release of HF has not resulted in an event of catastrophic proportion,” she said.

An HF release at the Sunoco refinery in March 2009 sent 13 contract workers to the hospital. Just last month, a worker sustained an eye injury from HF after a fire in a refinery cooling tower, Savage said. Other HF leaks have been reported this year at the Marathon Oil refineries in Canton, Ohio, and Texas City, Texas.

Much of the discussion Thursday centered on the viability of solid acid catalyst, undergoing testing by Chevron at its Salt Lake City refinery.

Heminway said United Steelworkers members at the plant report that the tests have been under way for more than a year and that the catalyst – tiny pellets she displayed in a jar and likened to tapioca – has performed well.

“It’s not as efficient as HF; we know that,” Heminway said. “But it’s certainly a whole lot safer.” One manufacturer, she said, estimates that a refinery could test the product in a pilot project for $5 million, a small sum for most oil companies.

Chevron officials did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Last month, iWatch News reported that Hyperion Resources, the company planning to build the first major U.S. refinery in 35 years, had decided to use a solid acid catalyst rather than HF. The $10 billion refinery will cover some 2,000 acres in southeastern South Dakota.

Bukowski nonetheless argued that the technology is unproven and said Sunoco has taken extensive measures to make sure no HF escapes from its 1,400-acre refinery in Philadelphia. “We have many layers of protection,” he said, including sensors that can detect leaks and water cannons to disperse any HF cloud that forms before it can leave plant boundaries.

Savage, president of the United Steelworkers local that represents Sunoco workers, said the refinery has a poor safety record and called the maintenance lapse that led to the March 2009 HF release “appalling” and “embarrassing.”

Savage said that the refinery’s hourly workforce ill-advisedly was cut from 700 to 600 and that some supervisors are reluctant to order safety fixes on equipment for fear of hindering production.

Top-to-bottom maintenance outages, known as turnarounds, used to occur at the refinery every three years or so, Savage said; now it’s every “four, five or six years.”

After conducting five inspections at the refinery between February 2009 and January 2011, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Sunoco for 20 alleged violations, 13 of which involved control of hazards that could lead to major fires, explosions or chemical releases.

People living near the refinery also expressed concern. South Philadelphia resident Cathy Brady complained that Sunoco doesn't communicate properly with its neighbors.

"I live a mile from the refinery and I don't have a clue what's going on there," Brady testified. "The [emergency] siren goes off and we have no idea what that means."

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