Investigation: oil refineries threaten millions with poison gas disaster


February 24, 2011

Devastation from an explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 180 at the BP Texas City refinery on March 23, 2005.

The Center for Public Integrity and ABC News have an extraordinary investigation that highlights how millions of Americans are put at risk from a toxic acid used by 50 oil refineries in communities around the United States, even though safer alternatives are available. If an accident or terrorist attack at one of these oil refineries caused a release of hydrofluoric acid, the poison gas cloud would threaten entire communities. And even though these huge oil companies like BP, Citgo, and others could easily afford to convert to safer technologies and processes, the companies have so far put their profits ahead of the workers and communities that are exposed to these catastrophic risks. As Senator Pat Murray (D-WA) told ABC News: “For three hours of revenue an oil company can change the use of hydrofluoric acid to make it safer for the workers and the community,” Murray said. “Certainly that kind of investment assures people are safe when they go to work and the communities, the people who live around those refineries, are protected. It’s worth it.”

And yet these oil companies not only put millions of people at risk, they often try to withhold information from the communities most affected and the officials responsible for protecting the public from the dangers of these facilities. From the investigation at the Center for Public Integrity:

So closely guarded are details of the risks that even when HF leaves a refinery, its neighbors aren’t always aware of the peril. Nor are government officials. After the 2009 release in Corpus Christi, Citgo told state regulators that only 30 pounds of the acid escaped plant boundaries. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board later estimated, however, that at least 4,000 pounds left the refinery and concluded that failures in a Citgo water system meant to contain HF had nearly led to a bigger release.

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.

When warning sirens sound at refineries, neighbors worry. “You never know, when you go to bed, if you’re going to live through the night,” said Janie Mumphord, who lives near Citgo.

And while they endanger communities and seek to hide the truth about the risk, these oil companies meanwhile have been lobbying Congress to block legislation that would reduce the risk. Currently, most oil refineries and many other types of facilities are exempt from the temporary chemical plant security law known as Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS). Legislation (H.R. 2868) passed by the House of Representatives in 2009 would have eliminated these exemptions, and conditionally required the highest risk facilities to utilize safer chemicals, technologies, and processes. But opposition from the oil industry, chemical companies like Dow, and even water utility trade associations managed to stall the legislation in the Senate. The fact that oil refineries and other high risk facilities haven’t converted to protect communities and workers from a poison gas disaster underscores the need for action from Congress to require conversion to feasible alternatives.

An ABC News interview with a worker who nearly died from exposure to hydrofluoric acid during an accident at a Sunoco oil refinery near Philadelphia offers a glimpse of the threat that this industry opposition needlessly perpetuates.

There will be more on this story tonight on ABC’s World News with Diane Sawyer and Nightline. And be sure to check out the investigation at the Center for Public Integrity for more, including an interactive map that shows which communities are at risk.


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