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Death by Corporation, Part IV: Dissolving the Planet for Oil

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

One of the most iconic scenes in movie history occurs near the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A fictitious German army officer and Indiana Jones’s archeological nemesis have captured Jones and his newly found ark of the covenant. As Jones somehow knows to look the other way, his nefarious but ignorant captors open the chest holding the ark. Demons pour out and within seconds their exhilaration turns to horror as their flesh hideously melts off their bones, and they die a spectacular death by an unspecified supernatural acid.

There is a real-life counterpart to this Indiana Jones supernatural acid – hydrofluoric acid, or HF. It’s not quite as depicted in Breaking Bad, but through exposure of skin or eyes, or when inhaled or swallowed, HF readily penetrates tissue, poisoning as it goes. Symptoms of exposure to hydrofluoric acid may not be immediately evident, but because HF interferes with nerve function it can wreak systemic havoc, resulting in death. HF is likely still being used and stored by a refinery near you.

But just when you thought that the oil companies couldn’t possibly put more poison into our air and water, do more damage to the earth, to our climate, to our future and our hope for survival, along comes “matrix acidizing,” the oil industry’s latest stroke of genius to extract oil from shale formations by literally disintegrating underground rock formations using – you guessed it, hydrofluoric acid.

During the summer of 1986, Amoco, Allied-Signal, Du Pont and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory voluntarily conducted a series of six experiments involving atmospheric releases of HF in an attempt to characterize its behavior. These studies, known as the “Goldfish studies,” were conducted at the Department of Energy Liquefied Gaseous Fuels Spill Test Facility in Nevada and showed that the HF did not remain a liquid following accidental release. Instead, under the conditions simulating a petroleum refinery explosion (HF above its boiling point and liquefied under pressure), 100 percent of the released liquid HF formed dense, rolling clouds of toxic vapor. The clouds expanded rapidly, and researchers measured dangerous concentrations at distances of three to six miles downwind. A person caught in this cloud would experience burning eyes, nose and throat. Soon their lungs would become inflamed and overwhelmed with fluid, followed by acute respiratory distress syndrome, ARDS, and most likely death within a few hours.

But maybe I worry too much. Maybe the oil and gas industry can pump millions of gallons of HF in wells underground all over America, fill thousands of diesel trucks with it, have them drive all over our roads – next to commuters who are texting on their cellphones – through rain, ice and snow, not cut any corners, never go too fast or lose their brakes. None of that HF will corrode any well cement or casings in the next 50 years and seep into our water supply, will it? This will all work out fine, right?

Actually we already know a fair amount about the risks of HF because of its current aboveground use in several applications, most importantly by about one-third of the oil refineries in the United States.

A 2013 survey of 50 US oil refineries by the United Steelworkers union, makes this statement.

“No industrial process risks more lives from a single accident than does the subject of this report – alkylation using hydrogen fluoride in oil refining. Fifty American refineries use HF alkylation to improve the octane of gasoline. Many are situated in or close to major cities, including Houston, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Memphis. In some cases, more than a million residents live in the danger zone of a single refinery. All in all, more than 26 million Americans are at risk.”

The survey found that over a five-year period, the refineries in the study experienced 131 HF releases or near misses and committed hundreds of violations of the OSHA rule regulating highly hazardous operations. Some specific historical examples illustrate the point.

On October 30, 1987, at the Marathon Petroleum Company refinery in Texas City, Texas, an HF release accidentally occurred involving between 30,000 and 53,000 pounds of HF over a 44-hour period. As a result of the high release rate immediately following the accident, the vapors initially migrated to an adjacent residential area. Eighty-five square blocks and approximately 4,000 residents were evacuated; 1,037 residents were treated at three neighboring hospitals with skin, eyes, nose, throat and lung irritation. Vegetation was also damaged in the path of the vapor cloud, but miraculously, no fatalities occurred.

In July 2009, an HF explosion blasted the Citgo East oil refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, critically injuring a worker and sparking a fire that burned for more than two days. In September 2012, in Gumi, South Korea, eight tons of HF gas burst from the Hube Global chemical plant. The leak killed five workers and severely injured at least 18 others, including plant employees and emergency personnel. An estimated 3,000 local villagers required medical treatment.

Over the past five years, authorities have cited 32 of the 50 US refineries using HF for willful, serious or repeat violations of rules designed to prevent fires, explosions and chemical releases, according to US Occupational Safety and Health Administration data. 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.

The EPA requires refineries using HF to estimate how many lives would be at risk from an accidental release of HF at their particular refinery. These estimates are made by drawing a circle on a map with the potential “accidental release” point at the center. The population within the circle, defined by a radius of the endpoint distance, is the number of people vulnerable in the event of a worst-case HF release. The radius of that circle depends on the amount of HF stored and how far it might travel. Half of those refineries have a radius endpoint greater than 20 miles (remember the diameter of the circle is twice the radius).

Those industry calculations are shocking. 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 death or serious injury, according to BP’s own calculations, provided to the EPA. A release from the Marathon refinery near Minneapolis could total 110,000 pounds, travel 25 miles and threaten 2.2 million people.

In my hometown of Salt Lake City, there are five refineries, three of them use HF. In a worst-case scenario, the companies involved, Chevron, Holly Oil and Flying J are putting the lives of a combined 1,692,000 people at risk.

There are safer refinery alkylating alternatives to HF, and two-thirds of US refineries have adopted them. But HF is cheaper, and no one is making the other 50 refineries change. But refineries that are too cheap to replace HF with safer alternatives are at least more careful, right? Well, no. Below is an excerpt from a recent letter from the US Dept. of Labor to all US refinery managers.

“In the last fifteen years, the petroleum refining industry has had more fatal or catastrophic incidents related to the release of highly hazardous chemicals (HHCs) than any other industry sector . . . We are particularly concerned that our inspection teams are seeing many of the same problems repeatedly.”

Rafael Moure-Eraso, the chairman of the US Chemical Safety Board, said, “We have a problem with the refinery industry. We have decreasing staff levels, disinvestment in safety, a lack of training, and accidents or near-misses – indicators of catastrophe – being ignored.” US refineries have sustained financial losses from accidents at a rate much higher than their overseas counterparts – four times as high, according to a 2006 report by Swiss Re, the world’s second-largest reinsurer. They indicated that the gap between refineries and those in other parts of the world was widening.

According to a 2012 report from the Center for Public Integrity, refinery workers describe, “a climate in which safety takes a back seat to ramped-up production. Rather than schedule top-to-bottom maintenance outages, which take units out of operation for extended periods, equipment is being pushed hard, sometimes beyond its design life, the workers say. They have a term for it: ‘Run to failure.’ “

“They’re managing their shareholders’ investments,” said Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 675, which represents workers at five refineries in the Los Angeles area, of the oil companies. “The price we pay is with our lives and our health.”

Despite a special inspection program launched by OSHA in 2007, and mirrored by most states that have their own safety programs, problems continue to occur at refineries with stunning regularity. Twenty-four of the 58 refineries examined by federal officials as of November 2010 had fires or explosions after the inspections were completed.

A trusting citizen of our great country would think, “But surely the federal government will bring down the regulatory hammer on those reckless oil barons.” You’re kidding, right?

The Chevron refinery in Salt Lake City just received notice of a civil penalty from the EPA for violating the Clean Air Act by failing to install pollution controls for NOx, mono-nitrogen oxides. The fine is $384,000. Chevron has lost that much in the cushions of their CEO’s couch. Literally, that represents 8 minutes of Chevron’s $26 billion in profits for 2012. Chevron was fined only $1 million for a spectacular refinery fire that sent 15,000 Richmond, California, residents to the hospital last summer. The corporation spent $10 million lobbying Congress last year and came away with $700 million in tax breaks. Little wonder how Chevron and the other members of the Big Oil club are able to do what they please, with impunity, including force feeding us hydrofluoric acid.

With the help of the masterminds of the oil industry, we are indeed, “running the entire planet to failure.” At a recent hearing in California on matrix acidizing, Paul Deiro of the Western States Petroleum Association, said, “We use acid because it’s effective. I’m unaware of any disasters related to this.” He urged the legislators to avoid “unnecessary” regulation of acidizing.

Indeed, if something is “effective” in making hydrocarbons rise magically from deep in the ground, and the drillers are “unaware of any disasters,” then what else do we need to know? What demons could possibly be released by destroying the planet for oil? But this is not the movies, and just looking the other way won’t save us.

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