Report: Safeguarding Public Health

Needless Risk

Oil Refineries And Hazard Reduction
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Across the country, petroleum refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities use and store large amounts of hazardous chemicals that, if subject to an accident or attack, would release dangerous toxins.  Such releases could injure or kill thousands of people that live in communities in close proximity to these facilities.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned in 2000 that an accident or terrorist attack at one of 123 chemical facilities could put more than one million individuals at risk of injury or death from toxic chemical exposure.  Incidents at another 700 facilities could endanger at least 100,000 people each, and 3,000 facilities could affect more than 10,000 people each.

Many of these facilities, however, present an unnecessary risk to their surrounding communities.  Industries often have multiple options for carrying out similar processes, and some of these options are inherently safer than others.  Facilities that use fewer or small quantities of hazardous chemicals, or even make changes to storage pressure or other processes, eliminate the possibility of on-site chemical accidents and make themselves less appealing terrorist targets.

Petroleum refineries stand as a stark example of the unnecessary risk posed by such facilities in the event of an attack or accident as well as the opportunity to mitigate this risk by using safer alternatives to toxic chemicals.

Many petroleum refineries use hydrofluoric acid in their processing, which poses a great public safety risk both because of its extreme toxicity to humans as well as its propensity to form a toxic aerosol cloud when released.  A catastrophic event at one of these facilities could cause a potentially lethal release of hydrofluoric acid, forming a stable aerosol cloud above the facility and surrounding neighborhoods.  Exposure to hydrofluoric acid results in devastating burns, and pain associated with the exposure may be delayed for up to 24 hours.  If the burn is not addressed, tissue destruction may continue for days.  Inhalation of fumes can cause symptoms ranging from severe throat irritation to pulmonary edema.

Petroleum refineries using hydrofluoric acid endanger millions of people.

Specifically:

·         Of the 153 petroleum refineries in the United States, 50 use hydrofluoric acid in their processing or store it on-site. 

·         These 50 refineries, using and storing 10.7 million pounds of hydrofluoric acid, endanger more than 15.6 million people living in surrounding communities in 20 different states.

·         With 12 refineries using hydrofluoric acid, Texas has more than any state.  Louisiana has five oil refineries that currently utilize hydrofluoric acid, and Illinois and Montana have four.

·         The five states with refineries using and storing the most hydrofluoric acid include Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Montana.

·         Refineries using hydrofluoric acid in Pennsylvania endanger almost four million people residing in their vulnerability zones, according to conservative estimates.  Refineries using hydrofluoric acid in Illinois endanger more than 3.6 million people, ranking the state second.  New Jersey ranks third.

·         Illinois, Louisiana and Pennsylvania all have two facilities in the list of the ten facilities with the most people residing in their vulnerability zones.

Fortunately, hydrofluoric acid is not the only material oil refineries can use in their refining processes.  Many other refineries already use sulfuric acid, a safer alternative, in the alkylation process.  This cost-effective switch diminishes the appeal of refineries as a terrorist target and mitigates the public health and safety consequences of an accident.  In addition, a new technology, solid acid catalysts, will soon be available for widespread commercial use, offering an even safer option than the use of sulfuric acid.

Petroleum refineries are but one example of the facilities that pose an immediate risk to public health in the event of a terrorist attack or chemical accident.  Refineries also are not the only example of facilities that could make cost effective changes to manufacturing processes to reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals—and therefore the associated threat to public health.

Unfortunately, most industrial facilities have not responded to the increased awareness of terrorism by switching to inherently safer technologies.  Instead, industry organizations such as the American Chemistry Council have placed emphasis on increasing physical security measures.  Hiring more guards, building higher fences, and placing more lights may all be part of a strong security plan, but this does not actually reduce the threat to the community.  Switching chemicals and processes to something less volatile not only reduces the chemical hazard to the community, but also reduces the need for costly add-on security measures and the attractiveness of the facility as a target for attack.

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