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“These are low-probability, high-consequence events, which is why any individual company is not, by itself, motivated to make potentially expensive changes to a safer technology,” Orum said.
Still, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year “showed us that worst-case releases actually do happen.”Refiners use HF as a catalyst to make high-octane gasoline.
A few companies, under pressure from advocacy groups and regulators, have switched to a modified form of the acid, which still poses significant risks to workers and communities but is less likely to travel as far.
No refinery owner has embraced a product known as solid acid catalyst, which union officials and chemical safety experts say is far safer than HF.
So closely guarded are details of the risks that even when HF leaves a refinery, its neighbors aren’t always aware of the peril. After the 2009 release in Corpus Christi, Citgo told state regulators that only 30 pounds of the acid escaped plant boundaries. And when the safety board sought to make public a Citgo video of the fire, the company resisted, arguing that it would “raise substantial issues of national security.” With the Department of Homeland Security’s blessing, the board eventually posted the video on its website, along with a report listing a series of failures that could have proven disastrous.
These “process safety management” standards require companies to conduct inspections, analyze hazards and plan for emergencies.
In all, at those 32 refineries inspectors found more than 1,000 violations, including nearly 600 at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, where 15 workers were killed and 180 injured in a 2005 explosion.
Although only some of the violations involved HF, they can be an indicator of operational weaknesses, particularly worrisome at refineries using the chemical, industry and government insiders say.
The information is not published and is not easily accessible by the public.
A recent spate of refinery equipment breakdowns, fires and safety violations has heightened concerns.
“Fifty million dollars is pretty cheap insurance,” he said. Refinery mishaps, even when they don’t involve HF, can be costly.