Open, Accountable Government
Hydrogen Fluoride – A Toxic Chemical in Your Neighborhood?
by Leeann Sinpatanasakul, 11/19/2013
Across the nation, 167 industrial facilities currently store and use hydrogen fluoride, a dangerous and highly toxic gas, in their manufacturing processes. In the past 15 years, 129 incidents have occurred, causing 100 injuries and five deaths, a high accident rate given the number of facilities. Many of these facilities are located in densely populated areas, and a release of hydrogen fluoride could put millions in danger. However, safer alternatives to this toxic chemical are available. Find out if you live near one of these facilities with a new map by the Center for Effective Government.
What Is Hydrogen Fluoride?
Hydrogen fluoride, also referred to as hydrofluoric acid in its liquid form, is a dangerous chemical compound that is so corrosive, it can dissolve glass on contact. Hydrogen fluoride is most commonly used to make refrigerants, plastics, aluminum, weed killers, and semiconductors for computers. It is also used in oil extraction and oil refining processes.
While the total number of facilities that store hydrogen fluoride is relatively low, these facilities pose significant risks to the heavily populated communities they are often located near. The United Steelworkers estimates that at least 26 million people live within the vulnerability zone of U.S. refineries with hydrogen fluoride. There are over 55,000 full-time employees at the 167 industrial facilities currently storing the chemical (this number does not include part-time workers or contractors), according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The chemical causes a variety of serious health problems. Even at low levels of exposure, hydrofluoric acid can cause chemical burns and disrupt the nervous system. This means that the pain is not often felt immediately, which can delay treatment and allow the chemical to cause greater damage. Breathing in even small amounts of hydrogen fluoride can damage lung tissue and cause fluid build-up in the lungs, leading to chronic lung disease. Long-term exposure can cause visual impairment or total blindness. Exposure to high concentrations of hydrogen fluoride can cause heart attacks or even death.
Facilities with Hydrogen Fluoride
Under the Risk Management Plan program, facilities storing more than 1,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride (with a concentration of 50 percent or greater) on-site are required to submit risk management plans to the EPA. Over the last 15 years, a total of 274 facilities have submitted risk management plans involving hydrogen fluoride. However, 107 of these facilities have "deregistered," presumably because the plant has closed or the amount of hydrogen fluoride used fell under the 1,000 pound requirement, leaving just 167 facilities currently reporting to the EPA.
At least 129 incidents occurred at 57 facilities storing hydrogen fluoride in the past 15 years, resulting in 100 injuries, five deaths, and nearly 100,000 people being evacuated from the facilities and surrounding communities.
Today, Texas has the most facilities with hydrogen fluoride at 22, followed by Pennsylvania and California, both with 14 facilities each. Texas facilities reported 32 incidents over the past 15 years. Louisiana facilities reported 22 incidents, and Pennsylvania facilities reported eight over the same time period.
Risks at Oil Refineries
Oil refineries account for 63 percent of all accidents at facilities with hydrogen fluoride. Oil refineries use hydrogen fluoride as a catalyst to spark a chemical reaction that produces high-octane gasoline. At the Alon USA refinery in Big Spring, TX, 11 incidents were directly related to hydrogen fluoride, the most of any facility. At the Placid Refining Co. in Port Allen, LA, 10 of the 19 incidents reported involved hydrogen fluoride.
An example of a refinery incident involving hydrogen fluoride occurred in 2009, when an explosion at a Citgo refinery occurred in Corpus Cristi, TX. The explosion caused a fire that burned for two days, severely injuring one worker. Citgo's water supply nearly ran out and sea water was pumped in to control the fire. The incident resulted in $28 million in property damage and 18 OSHA violations but generated a penalty of only $236,500.
In a 2013 study, the United Steelworkers criticized the safety records of refineries, including those storing hydrogen fluoride. Their study looked at 23 refineries in 13 states that use hydrogen fluoride and found that they had been cited for 293 violations of OSHA's Process Safety Management (PSM) Standard from 2006 to February 2011 (this number does not include the BP refinery in Texas City, which had 593 violations; a 2005 disaster at the BP facility killed 15 workers). Moreover, three-quarters of the 23 refineries reported at least one incident or near-incident in the past three years, for a total of 131.
Of the 23 refineries surveyed, the United Steelworkers found that more than half reported that most safety systems (protocols put in place to safely store, handle, and respond to emergencies involving hydrogen fluoride) were "less than very effective." Two-thirds of the refineries were "less than very prepared" to distribute protective safety equipment to workers in the event of an emergency. Although the survey did not include questions on the number of workers, some respondents also noted that staffing levels were too low to ensure safe operation of processes involving hydrogen fluoride. Based on these findings, the study recommended several steps to make refineries safer, including educating workers and the public on the dangers of hydrogen fluoride, investigating safer alternatives, and ensuring sufficient staffing to respond to emergencies.
Safer Alternatives and Better Guidelines
Oil refineries and other industries using hydrogen fluoride can eliminate the risks by switching to safer alternatives. The United Steelworkers, who represent most of the workers in these facilities, have advocated for a phase-out of the existing production method that uses hydrogen fluoride and a shift to the far safer solid acid catalyst as a way to produce high-octane fuel.
Companies have resisted the switch, citing the cost of converting a refinery. A shift to a solid acid catalyst is estimated to cost between $50 million and $150 million per facility. However, given the enormous revenues and profits being reported by the largest oil companies (ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips), these conversion costs could be easily managed. For ExxonMobil, converting its four refineries from hydrogen fluoride to a safer alternative would cost just 1.3 percent of its 2012 profits – using the higher estimate of $150 million per facility.
In other industrial processes where an alternative is not yet available, advocates propose decreasing the concentration of hydrofluoric acid solutions used in manufacturing processes. When concentrations of the chemical are above 50 percent, hydrogen fluoride can create a "toxic plume" when an explosion occurs; this does not happen when the concentration level is below 50 percent. The Intel Corporation, for example, only uses solutions at concentrations below 50 percent to manufacture semiconductors. Other electronics manufacturing plants could adopt these standards, too.
Safer alternatives to hydrogen fluoride exist for use in oil and gas refineries. However, it seems most companies will not adopt these safer alternatives voluntarily, despite the fact that millions of residents could be harmed by explosions. The Center for Effective Government continues to urge the EPA to use its authority to issue new guidance on the regulation of hydrogen fluoride and hundreds of other toxic chemicals stored at facilities situated near residential communities. Concerned citizens should examine our map of these facilities to see if their communities are at risk and advocate for safer alternatives. You can also make your voices heard by signing a petition asking the EPA to issue new guidelines.
Sofia Plagakis contributed to this article.