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Austin, Texas – Oil refineries needlessly put 1.9 million people in Texas at risk of injury or death in the event of an accident or deliberate attack, according to a new report documenting the major threat posed by refineries using hydrofluoric acid. In the wake of recent explosions at Texas chemical plants, the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG) called upon the facilities, starting with BP’s Texas City refinery, to immediately switch to safer alternatives that could reduce or eliminate the threat.
“Industrial facilities like oil refineries are sitting ducks waiting for an adversary to make full use of their disastrous potential,” said Luke Metzger, TexPIRG Advocate. “Safer technologies exist but industry has failed to take the public out of harm’s way.”
The report, Needless Risk: Oil Refineries and Hazard Reduction, focused on the danger of oil refineries that use and store large amounts of hydrofluoric acid onsite. If accidentally released, hydrofluoric acid forms an aerosol cloud over surrounding communities. An acid cloud can cause skin and deep tissue burns, serious bone damage, and death by burns to the skin, tissue or lungs. Symptoms from exposure continue for days if injuries are not treated and may not even appear for up to 24 hours after exposure.
Identified in the report are a number of companies that own refineries that use hydrofluoric acid which also operate refineries without that technology. ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Valero Energy Corporation, and Marathon Ashland, for example, own refineries that use hydrofluoric acid as well as refineries that use other technologies.
The report also named the parent companies that own facilities that endanger the most Americans include Sunoco, Inc., Valero Energy Corporation, Marathon Ashland Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, CITGO, ExxonMobil, Murphy Oil Corporation, and Premcor Inc.
“The fact that some companies use dangerous hydrofluoric acid at some refineries but safer alternatives at others shows that they are well aware of safer alternatives but choose not to implement them,” said Metzger.
Texas has had several harmful releases of hydrofluoric acid in recent years. In 1987, a release at Marathon Oil’s Texas City refinery sent 1,037 people to the hospital suffering from respiratory problems and skin rashes and forced 3,000 residents out of their homes for three days. In 1991, a release at Kerr Mc Gee's Corpus Christi refinery in Corpus Christi killed two workers and injured five others. Although neither involved a release of hydrofluoric acid, recent explosions at BP’s Texas City refinery have drawn concern over the facility’s storage of 800,000 pounds of the chemical on site.
With twelve refineries using hydrofluoric acid, Texas ranks number one in the nation. Nationwide, more than 17 million people live within the vulnerability zone of such a facility.
Needless Risk documents cost-effective alternatives to hydrofluoric acid at oil refineries. New facilities can be built using solid acid catalysts, completely eliminating the risk of a toxic cloud, for nearly the same cost as building a new hydrofluoric acid facility. In addition, existing refineries could switch to sulfuric acid, which poses less of an off-site threat, or to modified hydrofluoric acid, which reduces the severity of the consequences of an accidental release. The report authors pointed to a Valero Energy facility near Los Angeles, which is in the process of switching to modified hydrofluoric acid in response to public pressure after a 1987 accident.
“Texas facilities should follow Valero’s lead or, even better, completely protect Texans by switching to solid acid catalysts,” recommended Metzger. “And with their poor safety record, BP should work to regain public trust by leading the way in chemical security. Reducing and eliminating chemical hazards is the best way to fully protect Texas communities from accidental releases or terrorist attacks involving industrial chemicals.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 100 chemical facilities that each put more than one million people at risk of injury or death because of the hazardous chemicals they use and store onsite. No federal regulation requires industries to consider using safer chemicals or processes. TexPIRG encourages Senators Collins (ME) and Lieberman (CT), who are currently drafting legislation, to require facilities to consider changing their chemicals and processes to a safer alternative in order to protect the communities in which they operate.
“As Congress continues to debate this issue, they should remember the millions of people living in the shadow of these facilities,” added Metzger. “Nearly four years after September 11th, Congress must pass legislation that requires all chemical facilities change their processes and chemicals where possible.”
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