By Jim Morris and Chris Hamby | February 24, 2011 | The Center for Public Integrity
It was a disturbingly close call, closer than it appeared at the time. On July 19, 2009, an explosion rocked an oil refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, critically injuring a worker and spawning a fire that burned for more than two days. The blast at the Citgo East refinery unleashed a chemical unknown to many Americans, though it is capable of sweeping into dozens of communities, sickening or even killing as it moves.
Hydrofluoric acid, known for its ability to race long distances in a cloud, 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.
Despite decades-old warnings that the compound, commonly called HF, could cause mass casualties — and despite the availability of a safer alternative — 50 of the nation’s 148 refineries continue to rely on it.
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, a joint investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News has found. The government maintains closely controlled reports outlining worst-case scenarios involving highly hazardous chemicals. The Center reviewed reports for the 50 refineries that use HF. The reports describe the most extreme accidents anticipated by the plants’ owners. The information is not published and is not easily accessible by the public.
A recent spate of refinery equipment breakdowns, fires and safety violations has heightened concerns. Over the past five years, authorities have cited 32 of the 50 refineries using HF for willful, serious or repeat violations of rules designed to prevent fires, explosions and chemical releases, according to U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration data analyzed by the Center. These “process safety management” standards require companies to conduct inspections, analyze hazards and plan for emergencies.
In all, at those 32 refineries inspectors found more than 1,000 violations, including nearly 600 at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, where 15 workers were killed and 180 injured in a 2005 explosion. Although only some of the violations involved HF, they can be an indicator of operational weaknesses, particularly worrisome at refineries using the chemical, industry and government insiders say. Even a fire causing little damage can foreshadow a more serious event, the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s main trade association, notes in a 2010 guidance document for its member companies.
Some worst-case scenarios described in company filings with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are particularly chilling: An HF release from the BP refinery in Texas City, for example, could total 800,000 pounds, travel 25 miles and put 550,000 people at risk of serious injury, according to BP’s own calculations, provided to the EPA.
And a release from the Marathon refinery near Minneapolis could total 110,000 pounds, travel 25 miles and threaten 2.2 million people.
Refineries with HF also are located in or near cities including Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, as well as in rural parts of Oklahoma, Wyoming, Kentucky, and other states.
So closely guarded are details of the risks that even when HF leaves a refinery, its neighbors aren’t always aware of the peril. Nor are government officials. After the 2009 release in Corpus Christi, Citgo told state regulators that only 30 pounds of the acid escaped plant boundaries. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board later estimated, however, that at least 4,000 pounds left the refinery and concluded that failures in a Citgo water system meant to contain HF had nearly led to a bigger release.