EPA Declines to Avert Mass-Casualty Refinery Accidents

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For Immediate Release: Tuesday, November 5, 2019
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Despite Near Misses, Agency Claims Ignorance on Hydrogen Fluoride Risks

Washington, DC — Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refused to consider a legal petition seeking to ban a refinery chemical with the potential to cause catastrophic loss of life in American cities. The petition was filed this June by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) following a massive explosion at a Philadelphia refinery that could have caused a Bhopal-scale public safety disaster.

At issue is the chemical hydrogen fluoride (HF), the most hazardous substance used in that industry. HF is still used at more than a third of the 148 operating refineries in the areas containing more than 22 million residents. Exposure to merely 170 parts per million of HF in air for ten minutes can result in death or serious injury while an HF plume can linger for hours.

In its response to PEER, EPA claims a “lack of sufficient facts establishing that it is necessary for the Agency to issue a rule” and that it “cannot make the threshold determinations necessary” to determine if HF constitutes “an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.”

The PEER petition pointed to several recent near-miss HF releases, including:

  • The 2019 explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solution refinery, the largest on the Eastern Seaboard, near its HF storage which put 300,000 residents and workers at risk;
  • The 2015 explosion at a Torrance, California refinery which nearly breached HF storage tanks that could have killed or sickened hundreds of thousands near the heart of L.A.; and
  • A 2012 HF release in South Korea that killed five workers, sickened thousands, and left a disaster zone in its wake.

“EPA appears to be saying that it will not act until there is a body count,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney, noting that EPA does not dispute that it has the authority to order that refineries use safer alternatives. “Preventing eco-cataclysms is a major reason why we even have an EPA.”

In April 2019, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) also asked EPA to use its authority to prevent “catastrophic releases” of HF and consider ordering reliance upon “inherently safer” technologies. However, CSB has no power to enforce its recommendations.

“EPA has decided it will not act until a lawsuit forces it to, which sets a dangerously low bar for public safety.” added Whitehouse, noting that the legal standard to establish a mandatory EPA duty is quite high. “After years of regulatory inaction, it is no wonder that industrial safety in the U.S. is declining to the levels seen in developing countries.”

Although the PEER petition was filed in June, EPA claimed not to have received it until August, asserting that its response was within the 90 days required by law.


Read the PEER petition

See the EPA rejection

Look at CSB recommendation

Examine declining industrial safety in the U.S.

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