Philadelphia Explosion Underscores Danger of Refineries Using Hydrogen Fluoride

On Friday, July 12, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery in south Philadelphia is slated to close its doors, marking the end of an era that began in 1866, one year after the Civil War ended, when 50,000 barrels of kerosene and chemicals were first stored on site.

The plant — which continued to struggle financially after emerging from bankruptcy in August 2018 — experienced a major industrial accident on June 21. That morning, a massive fireball lit up the pre-dawn sky over Philadelphia after leaking hydrocarbon gas had ignited. Five workers were injured, all treated on site. Three explosions shook walls in Philadelphia and the blast was reportedly felt as far away as South Jersey.

Emerging evidence suggests that the disaster could have been far more severe — in large part due to a deadly chemical used at the PES refinery and roughly 50 others nationwide.

Hydrogen fluoride (HF) is one of the most dangerous chemicals used by industry. When released, it forms rolling clouds that cling low to the ground and can spread rapidly over long distances.

On the skin, HF burns and causes ulcers. Mixed with water, it forms hydrofluoric acid. Inhaled into the lungs, it can cause a range of harms, from cough to lung collapse to the deadly destruction of organs and bones. Breathing the gas for as little as five minutes can cause death within “a couple of hours,” according to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Symptoms can be immediate or delayed for days.

Aging refineries are playing Russian roulette with American population centers,” said Tim Whitehouse, a former enforcement attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in a statement, noting that more than 22 million people in the U.S. live near sites using HF. “Counting Philadelphia, three refineries using HF have had major explosions just since 2015, hardly cause for continued complacency.”

One Worker May Have “Saved the City, Really”

Much remains unknown about the recent blast, federal investigators said at a press conference on June 27, explaining that the unit where the explosion began remains too unsafe to enter.

Hydrocarbon vapors — of an unnamed type — leaked inside the plant’s “hydrogen fluoride alkylation unit,” for reasons investigators said remained unknown. Similarly, something — not yet clear — caused those vapors to spark and ignite, said Kristen Kulinowski, interim executive for the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (known as the Chemical Safety Board).

No HF was released from the refinery, city officials said. But accounts emerging from workers and others on site paint a troubling picture of how close to disaster Philadelphia may have come.

At the refinery on the day of the blast, alarms had first gone off around 4:00 a.m., the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, signaling a leak in Unit 433 — the part of the plant that uses HF as a catalyst to turn certain hydrocarbons into alkylate, which is blended into gasoline to raise its octane rating (particularly important for making gasoline from fracked shale oil).

In a worst-case scenario, according to the refinery’s risk management plan, a major leak of the 71 tons of HF used at PES could have traveled as far as seven miles in 10 minutes, across an area so densely populated that it’s home to 1.1 million people.

Back in 2009, 22 pounds of HF escaped and mixed with steam at the PES refinery, sickening 13 workers (hospitalized as a “preventative” measure) and leading to four “serious” Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations. That same year, the refinery installed equipment to rapidly drain the unit’s hydrofluoric acid into protected storage in the event of an emergency.

A decade later, that equipment may have proved crucial.

The equipment that was installed to save the acid worked,” Ryan O’Calaghan, president of the United Steelworkers Local 10-1, which represents PES refinery workers, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

She’s a f-ing hero. Whatever she did up there,” an anonymous worker told the Inquirer, referring to the employee who activated the emergency process. “When you’re ‘on the board’ as we call it, your alarm screen looks like a slot machine, all the alarms are going off.”

That worker, the Inquirer’s source added, may have “saved the city, really.”

The Chemical Safety Board’s four-person team is expected to release preliminary results from its investigation in six to nine months.

Over 50 people attended a protest five days after the explosion, with area residents recounting not only their fear during the June blast and shelter-in-place order, but describing family members and friends whose deaths from cancer and other long-term illnesses they ascribed to the plant’s pollution.

It could have been a lot more serious,” Mark Clincy, who lives near the site of the explosion and had received a phone call from the Fire Department instructing him to shelter in place after the blast, told DeSmog. “They don’t realize, that explosion could have been a lot worse.”

A small group holds signs during a protest march
Mark Clincy attended a June 25 rally by community members living near the PES refinery after the blast.

Philly Refinery Financial Woes

In the end, it was refinery management and not government regulators who ordered the PES refinery to close down. Union workers were stunned to be given just two weeks’ notice; some non-union workers were let go with even less. A class action lawsuit filed July 1 alleges that refinery management ignored laws requiring at least 60 days’ notice of large layoffs; the PES refinery employed roughly 1,100.

The PES refinery site sprawls over 1,400 acres in south Philadelphia, comprised of two refining complexes, the Girard Point refinery, where the accident occurred, and the Point Breeze refinery, which uses sulfuric acid as a catalyst instead of HF and which at the time of the Girard Point fireball was undergoing repairs from a separate smaller fire earlier that month.

The Atlantic Petroleum Company had established its Philadelphia presence in 1866 — long before automobiles were invented — using the site to store 50,000 barrels of kerosene and other chemicals. Crude oil had just been tapped for the first time in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, on the western side of the state. In 1870, the Philadelphia site’s first petroleum refinery was built — six years before the invention of the gasoline-fueled engine and nearly four decades before Ford produced its first Model T.

The 153 year-old plant also pre-dated America’s cornerstone environmental laws and regulations — and the site became steeped in toxic pollution.

In more recent decades, the aging refinery has struggled financially.

“This facility was significantly less sophisticated than the other East Coast refineries,” economist Phil Verleger told local public media station WHYY. “It could barely hang on in a strong market. Once the [crude oil] export ban was gone, it couldn’t survive.”

In March, the refinery’s president and COO and its chief commercial officer left PES as part of what the Philadelphia Inquirer called an “exodus of senior executives.”

A small group holds signs during a protest march
Philly Thrive and the Right to Breathe Campaign had been organizing a series of neighborhood protests over the refinery, the source of 72 percent of the city’s toxic air emissions, before the June 21 explosion occurred. Organizers called for the site to be used for renewable energy projects.

In September 2018, Christina Simeone, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, published a report titled “Beyond Bankruptcy,” which noted both that the PES refinery was by far the largest source of toxic and greenhouse gas pollution in Philadelphia and that “[b]ankruptcy did nothing to change the fundamental structural challenges facing the refinery, nor did it address new challenges on the horizon.” The report predicted the plant, which had just emerged from bankruptcy a month earlier, would be bankrupt again by 2022.

It also hints at the difficulties that may be involved in building new infrastructure at the site of the refinery if no buyer emerges to re-open the ailing plant.

For example, the ground below the refinery had became so saturated in spilled oil, gasoline, and other hydrocarbons that in 1962 tragedy struck when Philadelphia water department workers attempted to install sewer pipes at a depth of 40 feet, the Beyond Bankruptcy report notes. “Attempts to complete the sewer project in the presence of hydrocarbons eventually led to an explosion, the death of four construction workers, and subsequent litigation,” it said.

Those hydrocarbons, the report added, turned out to be gasoline, which was considered a waste product in the earliest years of the oil industry, when refineries made kerosene and lubricants rather than automotive fuels. And the plant’s equipment had leaked for decades. When the first leak collection systems were installed at the refinery in the 1930s, they collected over 46,000 barrels of oil each month, the report adds, and “presumably these products were being released into the environment prior to that time.”

Sunoco, an Energy Transfer subsidiary which formerly owned the refinery, reached a 2012 agreement with the EPA to clean up past pollution — but analysts predict legal battles may be on the horizon.

We know fossil fuel companies other places have walked away from what they owe,” Sylvia Bennett, South Philadelphia resident and member of Philly Thrive, said in a June 26 statement, “and we won’t stand for that here.”

A woman in a yellow shirt is at the forefront of a protest in a wide street
Sylvia Bennett at a June 25 rally outside the PES refinery, just days after the explosion.

Lawsuit Asks for Phase-out of Hydrogen Fluoride

On June 25, watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a legal petition with the Environmental Protection Agency, asking the agency to prohibit the use of HF in refining and to require the phase-out of HF within two years.

[S]uch regulations are necessary to ensure that the highly toxic substance is no longer used in oil refineries, given its inherently dangerous nature, the occurrence of ‘near miss’ accidents, the availability of safer alternatives, and the potential for terrorist attacks targeting chemical plants,” PEER wrote.

The petition comes on the heels of an April 23 letter from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to Andrew Wheeler, EPA administrator, in which the CSB wrote that it “strongly encourages” EPA to assess the risks of “catastrophic releases” of HF and to consider requiring a phase-out of HF nationwide.

Philadelphia is not the only place where HF has recently posed risks during industrial accidents.

A playground is seen in front of a large industrial structure
A playground in Philadelphia, within a block of the PES refinery, visible above.

On April 26, 2018, the Husky Energy refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, which has a population 27,000, burst into flames, prompting an evacuation, though no HF was reported as released.

In February 2015, a Torrance, California, refinery that used HF experienced an explosion — and a 40-ton piece of equipment was sent flying. It landed within 5 feet of two storage tanks holding a “modified” form of HF, which is designed to lower the risk of the gas spreading as far, but which critics argue still poses significant risks.

In 2012, five workers were killed and 3,000 people sought medical treatment after an explosion and leak of hydrofluoric acid at the Hube Global plant in Gumi, South Korea.

In February, a presentation by California air quality regulators identified 10 small leaks of modified HF from two area refineries since 2017. On June 22, the day after the Philadelphia blast, California authorities voted 3-2 in favor of a measure that would allow two of the state’s refineries to keep using modified HF with extra safety measures.

Eight major metropolitan areas — Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Texas City, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Canton, and Memphis — were home to or near 19 refineries that use HF or modified HF, a 2013 report by the U.S. Steelworkers found. They tallied 22 million Americans living near those plants.

EPA should finally act to relieve millions of Americans from living with a chemical sword of Damocles hanging over their heads,” said Whitehouse, who is currently executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “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.”