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Refinery chemical: Bellingham’s safety at risk?

Barbed wire surrounds the ConocoPhillips refinery near Ferndale, which uses a type of chemical regulated under both the Deparrtment of Homeland Security and the EPA. Credit: Will Graff/InvestigateWest

For 170,000 people living in and around Bellingham, it’s a distinctly chilling scenario: Something goes horribly wrong at the ConocoPhillips’ refinery near Ferndale and, over the next 10 minutes, 110,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid explodes into a cloud that goes on to burn people’s lungs in whole neighborhoods or towns, causing widespread shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, and possibly even death.

The ConocoPhillips refinery is the only refinery in Washington using a chemical known as hydrofluoric acid, described by federal health officials as a “highly corrosive . . . serious systemic poison.” The stuff is so toxic that it can harm people up to 14 miles downwind, government records show.  

“You mean the most deadly chemical ever invented?” asked environmental activist Denny Larson of Global Community Monitor. “I’ve worked on refinery issues for 25 years. This has been a major issue for at least that long because it is known as one of the most deadly chemicals ever invented.”

Confirms Mark MacIntyre, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle:  “It’s horrible stuff. It’s some of the worst stuff in the spill-response world.”

Hydrofluoric acid is powerful enough to eat through glass. Its ability to penetrate skin and soft tissue makes it particularly dangerous, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fifty out of the United States’ 148 oil refineries use hydrofluoric acid to boost octane levels of their products, even though less-toxic alternatives exist. Washington’s other four refineries don’t use hydrofluoric acid.

ConocoPhillips declined to comment about the situation at its Ferndale refinery. But oil industry representatives have said retrofitting the refineries using hydrofluoric acid so they could use alternatives would be extremely costly — and that they’re not convinced the alternatives are all that much safer.

ConocoPhillips also would not discuss whether the hydrofluoric acid used at the Ferndale refinery travels by rail through Seattle or is trucked in, which would likely take the material through heavily populated areas, or if it is brought in by water across Puget Sound. Nor could Local Emergency Planning Committee officials in Whatcom County say how the material is brought in, even though the state Emergency Management Division says LEPCs are supposed to “develop and maintain emergency response plans based on the volumes and types of substances found in, or transported through, their districts.” State officials at the Ecology and Transportation departments and the State Patrol likewise were unsure how the potent acid gets to the refinery.

Bringing the transportation issue into sharp focus was the toxic rail accident over the weekend in which four railroad tanker cars carrying caustic sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, derailed near the Tacoma Narrows on the banks of Puget Sound. Fourteen cars went off the tracks and sideswiped another train. About 50 gallons of lye leaked, authorities reported, but each of the four cars carrying the caustic material held 15,000 gallons, Department of Ecology spokesman Curt Hart said.

The 170,000 people at risk around ConocoPhillips’ plant near Bellingham number among some 16 million Americans in the potential path of hydrofluoric acid should an accident or terrorist strike let loose a spill at the refineries using hydrofluoric acid, which are the subject of an investigation released by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News. A spate of breakdowns, fires and safety violations at these facilities — including a 2009 explosion that released more than 4,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid at Corpus Christi, Texas — has heightened concerns.

The Center analyzed U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration data for the past five years, finding authorities cited 32 of the 50 refineries using hydrofluoric acid for willful, serious, or repeat violations of rules designed to prevent fires, explosions, and chemical releases. ConocoPhillips’ Ferndale refinery received two such citations last year stemming from a fire that resulted from failure to regularly grease a motor.   

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington could be a key player in limiting potential danger from refineries’ use of hydrofluoric acid, because she heads the U.S. Senate subcommittee that covers workplace safety. She said the oil industry should use a safer alternative to hydrofluroric acid.

“The cost is so small compared to the billions of dollars in profits that these companies make,” Murray told the Center for Public Integrity.

Even splashes of hydrofluoric acid on the skin can be fatal. The acid is dangerous enough that if some spills on a person’s shirt, the government advises cutting off the shirt rather than pulling it over the victim’s head.

But the way the largest number of people could be exposed in an accident at the ConocoPhillips’ Ferndale refinery would be a ground-hugging fog that moves out to engulf a swath of the community in toxic fumes, according to a document filed with the EPA by ConocoPhillips in June 2009 outlining what the company says is the worst-case scenario. Bellingham, Blaine, Birch Bay, Lynden, Ferndale, and the Lummi Indian Reservation all sit within that circle, which also reaches into southern Canada.

A mega-disaster would require the right set of circumstances — a wind of maybe 1 to 2 mph coming from the right direction. The biggest danger would be if that breeze originated in the northwest, pushing the toxic cloud across Bellingham, population 77,500. While those weather conditions are not terribly common, they do occur at certain times of year, said University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass. Winds in the winter tend to come from the south, which would push the material toward Blaine and Birch Bay. Winds from the west would target Ferndale.

“During the summertime there are very frequently winds from the northwest coming down the Strait of Georgia,” Mass said. “Those winds would take it straight to Bellingham.”  He said summer evenings are the most likely time for this to happen.

Schools, homes, hospitals, major commercial-office-industrial districts, wildlife sanctuaries, parks, at least one jail, and two state parks are located inside the 14-mie radius around the plant where people could be injured, the company told EPA.

The refinery has a history of fines and citations, government records show. Karin Martin, who works as an agent for Allstate Insurance Company in Ferndale, just six miles from the refinery, said she did not know ConocoPhillips was using a chemical like hydrofluoric acid.

“It’s concerning since I live right there,” she said. “I go running out there, I see that stuff, the smoke coming out and I don’t know if I should be breathing it in while I’m running.”

Environmental activists in Washington have not organized any opposition to the use of hydrofluoric acid, and in fact appear largely unaware of its use at the Ferndale refinery.

Pipeline Safety Trust director Carl Weimer would know if anyone would, because he has worked to strengthen regulation of pipelines following a 1999 gasoline pipeline explosion in Bellingham that killed three. Weimer also serves on the Whatcom County Council, and this year he became part of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, the interagency group that coordinates responses to chemical emergencies. Weimer said he had heard there was hydrofluoric acid at the refinery but its dangers never had been detailed to him during his six years on the county council.

“I think these refineries are like the pipelines I deal with all the time. There’s not very much public awareness,” Weimer said. “I think if the public was more aware, there would be more concern and maybe more pressure for the refineries to change the process.” 

Andy Day, manager of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, said although authorities have no measures in place specifically to deal with a hydrofluoric acid spill, he feels prepared for such an emergency.

“We have a highly capable hazardous materials team and then also by nature having some of the industrial manufacturers, i.e. Conoco and BP who you partner with, we have a lot of local knowledge on how to mitigate these events,” Day said. “How exactly would we deal with this? There’s no cookbook response to that. There’s no prescription.”

Day said hydrofluoric acid’s use at the refinery has never been questioned.

 “I’ve never heard the issue raised in public dialogue in our county here,” he said.

ConocoPhillips’ spokesman in the Bellingham area, Jeff Callender, did not respond to a phone message or an e-mail, and company spokesman Rich Johnson in Houston said the company would have no comment for this article.

However, in a filing with the EPA in June 2009, ConocoPhillips assured the agency that it has a thorough program in place to avert accidents.

“The Ferndale Refinery handles hazardous materials onsite, and recognizes a responsibility to safely operate the facility in order to protect the surrounding community, employees and the environment,” ConocoPhillps said. “The facility has taken a proactive stance to promote the overall safe operations of the processes, with programs to prevent accidents from occurring, planning for emergencies, and maintaining equipment needed if an emergency does occur.”

The ConocoPhillips Ferndale refinery is located in the northwest corner of Whatcom County, adjacent to the Lummi Indian reservation. The multiple-story smoke stacks spew white smoke that can be seen above the trees from Interstate 5. House-sized gray and white cylindrical vats stand in stark contrast to the surrounding wetlands, forest, mountain peaks, and Pacific Northwest coastline. The compound is surrounded by chain-link fence complete with barbed-wire and “no trespassing” signs. Inside, brown grass and asphalt lie beneath large, complex metal structures with stairs and ladders running up and down their sides. It smells slightly of sulfur and the massive machinery is oddly quiet.

Nationally, activists have called for decades of use of less-dangerous alternatives to hydrofluoric acid. The most readily available is sulfuric acid, which does not have the same potential to form a deadly cloud, and is not nearly as toxic, but which is able to burn people’s skin and lungs. The sulfuric acid must be used in large volumes in comparison to hydrofluoric acid, and all those gallons have to be transported to the refinery, although it’s possible to regenerate the sulfuric acid and minimize transportation of the material, said environmental consultant Paul Orum, who studied the issue for the Center for American Progress and other groups.

Orum, author of a report entitled “Chemical Safety 101: What You Don’t Have Can’t Leak, or Be Blown Up by Terrorists,” points out that hydrofluoric acid is regulated under the Department of Homeland Security’s anti-terrorism standards for chemical facilities and  EPA’s risk management planning program. Sulfuric acid is not regulated under either, with the exception of a special form known as fuming sulfuric acid, or oleum. 

When refineries use sulfuric acid instead of hydrofluoric acid, “the potential is simply not there for the same kind of emergency release,” Orum said.

Still-more-safe solid substitutes also have been developed, Orum said, but current regulations don’t give companies an incentive to switch to them.

Industry officials have taken issue with the call to switch to sulfuric acid. The National Petroleum Refiners Association did not return phone and e-mail messages for comment on this story, but has said in the past that the issue is far more complex than it is portrayed by chemical-safety activists.

For one thing, using sulfuric acid would mean bringing in regenerated sulfuric acid at the rate of several truckloads a day, versus one or two truckloads a month of hydrofluoric acid at a 10,000-barrel-per-day refinery, the refiners group said. Orum said that problem can be solved by regenerating the sulfuric acid at the refinery.

The refiners’ group also has said switching from using hydrofluoric acid to sulfuric acid is expensive — $45 million to $150 million per refinery, which the group says would boost operating costs 200 percent to 400 percent.

And the solid-acid catalysts advocated by safety activists are not commercially available, the refiners’ association says.

Phil Dyer, owner of Sterling Real Estate in Ferndale, said he was unaware ConocoPhillips used hydrofluoric acid. “I’ve heard of hydrofluoric acid, but didn’t know they used it there,” he said.

He said the subject of safety has never come up with clients buying houses close to the refinery.

“I just don’t know that it’s a threat at all,” he said

One Bellingham environmental group that bird-dogs the refinery’s environmental record is RE Sources, which reviews the permit applications of ConocoPhillips and three other refineries in the area.  The group’s lead scientist, Wendy Steffensen, said she had not previously heard about the danger of hydrofluoric acid at the ConocoPhillips facility.

“I’m concerned,” Steffensen said, “because it appears there are safer alternatives, and the public isn’t being protected.”

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