Use of Deadly Chemical at Refineries Questioned

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 @ 06:03 PM gHale

An accidental release of the lethal chemical, hydrofluoric acid, used in 50 aging refineries across the country could end up as a major catastrophe, according to oil industry documents filed with the federal government.

With 16 million Americans living within range of toxic plumes that could spread for miles, the areas at risk are Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and a stretch of Texas coastline.

Citing security concerns, the government keeps the industry filings under close guard in Washington, D.C. The documents were part of a joint investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity.

There are safer alternatives for the chemical hydrofluoric acid, which refiners use to make high-grade gasoline, but the industry has resisted calls to stop using it. One industry official said during an interview it would not be feasible to retrofit the refineries to use the safer approach. Federal officials said the real impediment all comes down to money. They estimated it would cost $50 million for the companies to upgrade each plant.

According to the industry’s worst-case scenario documents, a release of the chemical could endanger entire communities.

“Hydrofluoric acid is extremely toxic,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington. “It can be deadly immediately to workers around them, it can affect an entire community.” These plants are “a ticking time bomb.”

One-third of the oil refineries in the United States are using the chemical, Murray said the industry has long avoided demands from safety advocates and from the union that represents refinery workers that it explore safer options.