Toxic Clouds on the Horizon; The HF Threat Continues

HF test release. AQMD

By Isabelle Jeng, Environmental Journalist

If you think a leak at a refinery in Texas doesn’t concern you, think again. If you live, go to school or work in southern Los Angeles County, you are among the millions at risk of serious injury from hydrofluoric acid (HF), which is used to make high-octane gasoline. If you’re within six miles of the Torrance refinery or the Valero refinery in Wilmington, you are among the tens of thousands who risk death from a large release of this chemical.

As reported in the May Foggy View, there have been three major near misses in the last six years that could have caused mass casualties near refineries, one of them right here at the Torrance refinery. 

On May 42021, another refinery suffered a leakage of highly toxic hydrogen fluoride (HF). This time it was the Marathon Petroleum Corporation’s Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, Texas, 41 miles south of Houston. Texas City officials issued a shelter-in-place order for those who live between 14th and 34th streets, from Fifth Avenue South to Texas Avenue — a region that extends two miles downwind of the release. Residents were instructed to go home and stay inside, shut all windows, and turn off their air conditioning to prevent any fumes from entering their homes. 

Two refinery employees were taken to a nearby hospital. No other injuries were reported. Marathon spokesperson said of the incident, “The … refinery’s automated response systems today activated mitigation measures in response to a small chemical release. The release has been stopped and air monitoring data indicate no off-site impact … relevant regulatory notifications have been made. A full investigation will be conducted to determine the cause.”

According to a Reuter’s article, “The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) on Wednesday described the release as an undetermined amount of hydrogen fluoride, a toxic chemical that turns into a ground-hugging vapor cloud at room temperatures and can lead to severe health problems, even death.”

Marathon’s Galveston Bay Refinery is the second largest in the United States, producing 585,000 barrels of gasoline per day. The only larger refinery in the country is the Port Arthur refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, which, in comparison, produces 607,000 bpd. Earlier this year, Marathon shut down the Galveston Bay refinery for a complete overhaul, including its HF alkylation unit. The overhaul clearly did not address safety issues sufficiently, further endangering the health of those who live in its vicinity. 

Alarmingly, this is not the first HF release from a Marathon refinery in Texas City. In 1987, a crane dropped a heater unit on an HF storage tank, shearing off two pipes. A total of 53,000 pounds of HF were released from the top of the tank over a few hours. Fifty-eight thousand people on 85 city blocks were evacuated, and 1,037 people were treated at hospital for respiratory problems and skin and eye irritations. The accident could have been catastrophic if a pipe on the bottom of the tank were sheared off, and all the HF in the tank were release in a matter of minutes as demonstrated in the Nevada desert. 

According to another Reuter’s article, about 50 of the 135 refineries in the U.S. have elected to use HF as the catalyst in a process called “alkylation” for producing gasoline. Two of California’s 15 refineries — Valero and PBF’s Torrance Refining Company — use the toxic catalyst, and both are located in the densely populated South Bay region of Southern California. In a major accidental release, HF can form a ground-hugging cloud that is lethal for miles downwind.

In 2013, the United Steelworkers Union (USW) warned the public of the dangers of an accidental release of HF. The study, “A Risk Too Great, Hydrofluoric Acid in U.S. Refineries,” emphasized the lack of adequate safety systems to handle any releases. The USW estimated that many thousands of workers and millions of people are “at risk of exposure from an HF release.” 

Special thanks to  Jim Eninger for providing invaluable information for this article

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