ORRANCE, CALIFORNIA IS a tidy community of mostly mid-century homes situated between Los Angeles and Long Beach. It boasts a beautiful shoreline, an art museum, and nearly 150,000 residents who, with some bad luck, came very close to a toxic calamity in early 2015. An explosion at one of the sprawling oil refineries in the area sent an 80,000-pound piece of equipment hurtling through the air before it landed just feet from a tank containing a modified version of hydrofluoric acid. It was a close call: Had the acid tank been smashed, a deadly chemical cloud could have devastated this bedroom community.
Citing a federal investigation into the accident, Vanessa Allen Sutherland, then chairwoman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, said it had the “potential to be catastrophic.”
It’s easy to see why: Under intense pressure, hydrofluoric acid has the potential to form an airborne aerosol cloud when released. Such a noxious vapor can immediately penetrate skin and destroy tissue — and it can travel for miles depending on weather conditions. It’s the sort of nightmarish scenario that infamously befell residents of Bhopal, India, where a leak of a different gas, methyl isocyanate, went undetected at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in 1984 — an event that killed thousands of people.
According to the federal Energy Information Administration, as of January 2018, there were 135 petroleum refineries operating in the United States. About 100 of these have “alkylation” units, which produce alkylate, a high-octane blending component that helps gasoline burn cleaner. About half of those 100 refineries use hydrofluoric acid as a catalyst in that alkylation process, while the others use sulfuric acid, which in contrast does not turn into a vapor cloud when released.
The article was published at Activists and Oil Refiners Square Off Over Hydrofluoric Acid.