US Refineries Persist in Using Toxic Acid, Despite Safer Alternatives

Fifty refineries across the United States use hydrofluoric acid. Because this highly toxic substance can travel for miles in the form of a potentially fatal ground-hugging cloud, however, use of the chemical continues to prove highly controversial — rarely more so than now, given recent accidents at some of these refineries and potential rule changes that call into question the chemical’s long-term future in the oil refining industry.

In January 2017, California regulators announced that they were taking steps to potentially phase out a modified version of the acid being used at the two refineries in the state, but the rule is still being thrashed out, and it’s too soon to say whether an outright ban on hydrofluoric acid will be enacted there.

Hydrofluoric acid is used as a catalyst to transform crude oil into high-octane gasoline. If released into the environment in California, its ability to travel for miles would put at risk the densely populated neighborhoods surrounding both refineries in the South Bay region of Los Angeles.

Proponents of the status quo warn of the costs associated with switching to alternative processes, which could mean gasoline price spikes and plants potentially shuttered.

But Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, a local community group pushing for hydrofluoric acid to be phased out, believes that industry is exaggerating the costs of moving away from the chemical, and warns of the potential consequences of allowing its continued use. The Air Quality Management District (AQMD) is “bending too much to political and economic pressure by the refineries, and they’re not paying enough attention to their mandate to protect public safety,” she said about the agency responsible for the rule change. “There’s no other solution other than to get rid of [hydrofluoric acid].”

Much impetus for the ban stems from a February 2015 accident at the Torrance refinery, when weaknesses in the plant’s safety management system caused an explosion that catapulted a 40-ton chunk of debris which narrowly missed two settler tanks containing hydrofluoric acid. Had the massive hunk of metal struck the tanks, a worst-case-scenario release could have put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of injury.

Many are worried about more than just the plant’s safety record, however. Hayati, an engineering Ph.D., recently sent the AQMD a report that highlights how both plants are a major security risk, susceptible to targeted attacks by terrorists both from the ground and from the air.

An Air Quality Management District spokesperson confirmed that Hayati’s findings will be reviewed as part of the rule-making process. And if facilities that store large quantities of hydrofluoric acid are innately vulnerable to a terrorist attack, Hayati’s findings reverberate nationally. That’s because nearly 18 million people are estimated to be at risk in the event of worst-case scenario releases at the refineries across the US that still use hydrofluoric acid or modified hydrofluoric acid.

Modified hydrofluoric acid uses an additive that limits the chemical’s ability to form an aerosol cloud. It’s a major sticking point in the debate surrounding the proposed rule in California — industry figures argue that it’s the safest affordable option, among them Kim Nibarger, head of the United Steel Workers (USW) oil union, who said there is “not a lot of research or test results to prove or disprove the claims” made about modified hydrofluoric acid’s dangers.

But many experts disagree. The use of modified hydrofluoric acid can reduce the “magnitude” of a release, but it still poses a “significant risk” to surrounding communities, said Ron White, a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists. In modifying the acid, “the intention is to reduce the scope of the release — it doesn’t make it less toxic,” said White, who explained that modified hydrofluoric acid is almost as volatile as hydrofluoric acid in terms of relevant temperatures and pressures.

Viable alternatives to hydrofluoric acid — like ionic liquid catalysts — are “significantly safer” options, he said, adding that the cost of switching over to these safer alternatives can run into hundreds of millions of dollars, but the potential risks of not doing so are too great.

“It does not take a whole lot of [hydrofluoric acid] to cause death or severe health impacts,” White said. “Unfortunately, it could take a potentially disastrous release to really move this issue in a significant way. The thing is, the possibility under this administration for a positive response is unlikely.”

American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers failed to respond to multiple emailed requests for comment.

The Deadly Risk of a Traveling Plume

For a number of years, serious doubts have been raised over the safety of these facilities and their preparedness for accidents and emergencies.

In 2011, the Center for Public Integrity published a damning series of reports on the safety records at a number of refineries, including those that use hydrofluoric acid and its modified version.

The series detailed multiple fires within months at Sunoco, Inc.’s oil refinery in Philadelphia, for example, and highlighted how such events can be “key indicators” of larger problems at the facility. In the five years prior to the investigative series, 32 of the 50 refineries had been cited for “willful, serious or repeated violations” of safety rules. Of those 32 refineries, inspectors found more than 1,000 separate violations.  

USW, the largest industrial union in North America, subsequently published their own report titled “A Risk too Great,” which argued that refiners still using hydrofluoric acid have inadequate safety systems, and as a result, are unprepared for accidental releases.

Their analysis of safety records collected from a number of different federal agencies and industry organizations showed that there had been 131 hydrofluoric-acid-related incidents or near misses during the previous three years. At 16 of these sites, the most serious incidents either did or could have injured workers, the report found. Half of these serious incidents could have caused injuries to the people in the surrounding communities.

While the USW report describes modified hydrofluoric acid as a safer alternative to the unmodified chemical, it also explains that the modification of the acid “does not keep it from vaporizing and creating a traveling plume,” nor does it reduce its toxicity. “If the release was accompanied by a fire — and many refinery accidents involve fires — the vaporization of even modified [hydrofluoric acid] would be greatly increased,” the report adds. Indeed, the industry’s own material data sheets show that the chemical can form toxic clouds upon release, just like hydrofluoric acid.

Since those reports were published, accidents continue to occur at refineries where hydrofluoric acid is stored and used. In April, a fire at the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, reportedly sent 17 people to hospital and forced mandatory evacuations in the surrounding community. A tank containing roughly 15,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride was at risk, though it wasn’t compromised. The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency tasked with investigating major chemical accidents, is currently looking into the incident.  

Communities that live in the shadow of hydrofluoric acid refineries are now reflecting on their own safety history. EPA records identify 1.7 million people at risk of exposure to the chemical in the event of a worst-case disaster scenario at the Andeavor refinery in St. Paul, Minnesota. A trace amount of hydrofluoric acid was released in an incident at the refinery just this past April.

Experts also point to other risks associated with the chemical — including those that come with its transportation. According to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) figures from 2009, nearly 30,000 tons of hydrofluoric acid is transported by truck every year, and more than 264,000 tons by rail.

Fred Millar, an independent chemical expert, believes that the possible risks associated with transporting the chemical have never been “looked at carefully,” but added that in the early 1990s, the South Coast Air Quality Management District board found the bulk transportation of hydrofluoric acid to the refineries posed “unacceptable disaster release” potentials in California. Because of this and other risks, he said, the board back then voted to phase out the chemical — a decision later overturned.

In his 2007 book, The Edge of Disaster, national security expert Stephen Flynn warns — in terms similar to Hayati’s — of the potential for terrorist attacks where hydrofluoric acid is stored in bulk. Critics also voice concern about the potential vulnerabilities of these facilities to cyber assaults — a concern heightened by the growing number of cyberattacks on the nation’s power grid.

In August 2017, a Saudi Arabian petrochemical company was the victim of a cyberattack that was meant to “sabotage the firm’s operations and trigger an explosion” at the company’s plant, The New York Times reported. An explosion was averted only because of an error in the attacker’s computer code.

Paul Orum is an expert in chemical safety policy who has given multiple Congressional testimonies on the effectiveness of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program — an arm of the US Department of Homeland Security focused on high-risk chemical facilities. While the program requires facilities that fall under its umbrella to maintain certain standards of cyber security, he questions the rigorousness of this enforcement mechanism. At the end of the day, the program fails to take advantage of measures that would “reduce the target itself,” he said.

“In other words, reduce or remove the hazardous chemicals that serve as an attractive target for terrorists,” said Orum. “Otherwise, all you have to do is get your threat assessment wrong, and your security measures are obsolete.”

Resistance to Safer Alternatives

Hovering over the issue is the delayed implementation of a rule designed to tighten safety procedures at facilities covered by the EPA’s Risk Management Plan.

Finalized and passed during the waning months of the Obama administration, the federal rule was also geared toward better protecting first responders and fenceline communities. But last year, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the agency would delay implementation of the new rule until February 2019. Then in May of this year, the EPA put out for public comment a series of changes to the Obama-era rule, rescinding some amendments and modifying others, including those related to things like information disclosure.

“Accident prevention is a top priority at EPA, and this proposed rule will ensure proper emergency planning and continue the trend of fewer significant accidents involving chemicals,” Pruitt is reported as saying in explanation of these latest changes.

The Obama-era Risk Management Plan rule changes included amendments related to safer technologies, ordering certain chemical manufacturers, refineries and pulp and paper mills to examine and consider safer alternatives where practical. Some experts point out that, when it comes to hydrofluoric acid, the amendment could have forced refineries to switch to safer chemical catalysts. It could have also required refineries to store smaller quantities of the chemical. But the EPA’s latest changes rescind the safer technologies amendment entirely.

According to Gordon Sommers, associate attorney with Earthjustice, it is “unbelievable that the EPA won’t even require companies to consider” whether safer alternatives to hydrofluoric acid exist. And many community groups point out that neighborhoods that sit in the shadow of these refineries are often unaware of the risks.

“The public, understandably, has many other things to worry about,” Denni Cawley, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, told Truthout. “It often takes community organizations to make them aware.”

Other safer options do exist. Chevron’s refinery in Salt Lake City, Utah, is in the process of switching over from hydrofluoric acid to a new ionic liquids alkylation plant. “Once the Chevron plant’s up and running, I think people need to take a serious look at making the switch,” said USW’s Kim Nibarger.

The problem, said Paul Orum, is that refinery operators as a whole aren’t incentivized enough to make the switch unilaterally. “An innovation like that, nobody wants to be the first adapter — they want someone else to work all the bugs out first,” he said, highlighting the costs associated with adapting to safer technologies. One industry estimate pins the installation cost of a new sulfuric acid alkylation unit at the Torrance refinery in California at roughly $600 million, for example. Though it should be noted that critics argue that the industry’s estimates have been inflated.

Ultimately, said Orum, “change might take a major catalyst like a bad event, or some sort of regulatory driver.”

In California, where possible regulatory changes are currently playing out, Hayati is pinning her hopes on the new rule forcing refineries to go the way of Chevron. If it doesn’t, and the state’s two modified hydrofluoric acid-using refineries still employ the chemical when the Olympic Games roll around in 2028, the potential risks associated with a successful terrorist attack at either of the facilities during the event would be “absolutely catastrophic,” she warned. “The eyes of the world will be watching,” Hayati said. “And because of the false safety claims that have been made, there would be hell to pay.”