Oil refineries pose unacceptable security risk to over 1 million people in Louisiana: ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Refining stores dangerous chemical

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[Chalmette, LA] – Oil refineries’ use of hydrofluoric acid – a dangerous chemical for which there are safe alternatives - needlessly puts 1,081,649 people in Louisiana at risk of injury or death in the event of an accident or deliberate attack, according to a new report released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality.  The report, Needless Risk: Oil Refineries and Hazard Reduction, authored by U.S. PIRG, documents the major threat posed by refineries to surrounding communities, as well as available technologies that could reduce or eliminate the threat. 

“It is unacceptable that oil refineries continue to needlessly threaten so many people’s lives across Louisiana,” said Aaron Viles, Gulf States Field Director with U.S. PIRG’s New Orleans office. “Safer technologies exist but industry has failed to take the public out of harm’s way.”

The groups focused on the danger of oil refineries that use and store large amounts of hydrofluoric acid onsite. ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Refining stores 694,000 pounds of the chemical just a block away from St. Bernard residents’ homes and less than five miles from New Orleans. 

If accidentally released, hydrofluoric acid forms an aerosol cloud over surrounding communities.  An acid cloud can cause skin and deep tissue burns, serious bone damage, and death by burns to the skin, tissue or lungs.  “I know Mobil was asked to use safe alternatives years ago,” said Ken Ford, President of St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality. “Other refineries have stopped using it. It’s unsafe and I don’t like it. It’s dangerous for our families.”  Symptoms from exposure continue for days if injuries are not treated and may not even appear for up to 24 hours after exposure.

There is a long history of accidents at oil refineries that use hydrofluoric acid.  The largest hydrofluoric acid accident in the United States took place in 1987 in Texas City, Texas, when a pipe ruptured at a refinery and released 30,000 pounds of the chemical.  More than a thousand people were sent to the hospital as a result of the accident, and 3,000 residents were forced to evacuate their community for three days. “There are refineries that do not use hydrofluoric acid,” said Anne Rolfes, Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “ExxonMobil needs to get out of the Dark Ages and use modern technology. We are demanding a phase out of hydrofluoric acid in 2004.”

After the September 11th attacks, the Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department, General Accounting Office, U.S. Army Surgeon General, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control issued reports drawing attention to security at chemical and industrial facilities. Critics argue that chemical plants are attractive terrorist targets with ineffective physical security, and that they can be made safer but that voluntary efforts by industry are insufficient.  According to these reports, a lone adversary could trigger the release of thousands of pounds of hydrofluoric acid.  In January of 2002, for example, a robber carrying a shotgun broke into a facility owned by Citgo Petroleum Company in Texas, despite Citgo’s claims to have improved security since September 11th.

Louisiana, with more than 1 million people living within the vulnerability zone of a refinery using hydrofluoric acid, ranks 5th in terms of number of people at risk because of its use.  Nationwide, more than 15.6 million people are within the vulnerability zone of such a facility.

Needless Risk documents cost-effective alternatives to hydrofluoric acid at oil refineries.  New facilities can be built using solid acid catalysts, completely eliminating the risk of a toxic cloud, for nearly the same cost as building a new hydrofluoric acid facility.  In addition, existing refineries could switch to sulfuric acid, which poses less of an off-site threat, or to modified hydrofluoric acid, which reduces the severity of the consequences of an accidental release.  The report authors pointed to the Valero Energy Corporation, near Los Angeles, which recently agreed to switch to modified hydrofluoric acid in response to public pressure after a 1987 accident.    

 “Reducing and eliminating chemical hazards is the best way to fully protect St. Bernard communities from accidental releases or terrorist attacks involving industrial chemicals,” said Mr. Ford.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 120 chemical facilities that each put more than one million people at risk of injury or death because of the hazardous chemicals they use and store onsite.  No federal government regulation requires industries to consider implementing inherently safer technology. U.S. PIRG supports legislation introduced earlier this year by Senators Corzine (NJ) and Jeffords (VT) to require facilities to consider changing their chemicals and processes where that option is available in order to protect communities.  

You can say this if you want: “As the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee debates this issue in Washington DC, they should remember the millions of people living in the shadow of oil refineries,” concluded U.S. PIRG’s Viles, “Congress must pass legislation that requires all chemical facilities change their processes and chemicals where possible, to prevent any accidental releases or attacks.”

U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) is a non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organization.  U.S. PIRG, in association with state PIRGs in 28 states, conducts research and public education on public health, environmental, consumer, and democracy issues.  Contact our Gulf States field office at 504.314.0773 or on the web at: http://uspirg.org/gulf 

St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality (SBCEQ) is a Chalmette based community group created to foster cooperation and communication among individuals and organizations to address environmental problems of Louisiana. SBCEQ cleans up pollution to protect health, property and quality of life. www.environmentwatchdog.com

Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) is an environmental health and justice organization working with communities that neighbor the state’s oil refineries and chemical plants. The “bucket” is an EPA-approved, community friendly tool used to take air samples.  The LABB is supporting the SBCEQ in advocating decreased pollution at the troubled ExxonMobil Refinery in Chalmette. www.labucketbrigade.org

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