Refinery Fires Needlessly Risk Mass Casualty Events

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For Immediate Release: Jun 25, 2019
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

EPA Action Needed to Ban Chemical Threatening Bhopal-Like Tragedies

Washington, DC — Today, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a legal petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking to ban hydrogen fluoride from further use in U.S. refineries. The massive explosion at a Philadelphia refinery this past week would have been exponentially worse had Hydrogen Fluoride or HF, a highly volatile and deadly chemical used at the refinery, been involved.

HF is among the most hazardous substances used in industry. Exposure to merely 170 parts per million in air for ten minutes can result in death or serious injury. At the Philadelphia Energy Solution refinery, the largest on the Eastern Seaboard, an explosion in a butane tank took place near the refinery’s HF storage area. Had HF been implicated, nearly 300,000 surrounding residents and workers would have been placed in jeopardy.

In 2012, an HF release in South Korea killed five workers, sickened thousands, and left a disaster zone in its wake.  In February 2015, an explosion at a refinery in Torrance, California, near the heart of Los Angeles, hurled a 40-ton piece of equipment within five feet of striking two large tanks containing HF.  Three schools and many hundreds of homes lie within a mile of the tanks.

“Aging refineries are playing Russian roulette with American population centers,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former enforcement attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, noting that HF is still used at more than a third of the 148 operating refineries within the shadow of more than 22 million residents. “Counting Philadelphia, three refineries using HF have had major explosions just since 2015, hardly cause for continued complacency.”

PEER has filed a legal petition urging EPA to phase out HF from all refineries within two years. In April, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board also asked EPA to use its existing authority to assess the risks of “catastrophic releases” of HF and consider ordering reliance upon “inherently safer” technologies.

Following earlier accidents in the 1980’s, the Torrance Refinery added a “modifier” to its HF – a chemical additive intended to reduce the formation of airborne hydrogen fluoride following a spill.  But decades later, there is still little reliable scientific data to show that modifiers work. Meanwhile, several other refineries, such as those in Utah and Oklahoma, are abandoning HF in favor of safer advanced catalysts that will never vaporize to threaten workers and the public.

“EPA should finally act to relieve millions of Americans from living with a chemical sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.” added Whitehouse, pointing to the last weekend’s action by the South Coast Air Quality Management District which ordered development of a new “performance standard” to prevent catastrophic releases but narrowly defeated (by a 3-2 margin) an outright HF phase-out. “These refinery accidents cost consumers billions of dollars at the gas pumps, just a small fraction of what it would cost industry to upgrade to safer alternatives.” 


Read the PEER rule-making petition

See the Chemical Safety Board letter 

Examine U.S. avoidance in embracing inherently safer technology

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