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Chemical Safety Board Probes ExxonMobil Refinery Toxic Gas Leak

WASHINGTON, DC, August 7, 2009 (ENS) – A four-member investigative team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is traveling to the ExxonMobil refinery in Joliet, Illinois, the site of a release of propane and toxic hydrogen fluoride Thursday.

At around 12:30 pm on Thursday, there was a sudden release of propane and hydrogen fluoride from the vicinity of a pump in the refinery’s alkylation unit, which uses hydrogen fluoride as a catalyst to refine crude oil into fuel.

The leak did not ignite, but one operator was transported to the hospital suffering from what were described as serious chemical burns. He was initially reported to be in critical condition.

Upon contact with moisture, including human tissue, hydrogen fluoride converts to hydrofluoric acid, which is highly corrosive and toxic, and requires immediate medical attention.

A second operator was examined at the hospital and released.

The unit’s water deluge system, which is designed to contain airborne hydrogen fluoride releases, was activated and the alkylation unit was shut down. Refinery personnel were instructed to shelter in place.

ExxonMobil refinery and offices, Joliet, Illinois (Photo by Robert Powers)

“Monitoring immediately following the incident determined there is no offsite impact,” ExxonMobil said in a statement. The company announced plans to investigate the cause of the leak at the Joliet refinery.

Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland said it was the third time this year that hydrogen fluoride has been released from refineries.

“We are concerned about the three apparent releases of hydrogen fluoride from refinery alkylation units in Pennsylvania, Texas, and now Illinois that have been reported since March 2009,” Bresland said.

“Because of its high toxicity, any loss of primary containment for hydrogen fluoride is a serious matter,” he said.

Recent reported releases include those at the Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 11, and also during a fire at the CITGO refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, on July 19-20.

The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, currently has a team at the CITGO Corpus Christi refinery examining that incident, in which an injured refinery employee was airlifted to a burn center in San Antonio.

In a July 22 letter to CSB Chairman Bresland, the Sierra Club and Citizens for Environmental Justice raised “serious public health concerns over CITGO’s egregious failure to notify and evacuate the nearby community as well as attempting to downplay fence-line community impacts of its toxic refinery pollution, in particular hydrofluoric acid.”

Jean Salone, a Hillcrest resident and member of CFEJ says officials from the company and from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality “should have come out to the community to talk to us, to inform us of what’s going on,” but no one came.

“Neighbors I’ve talked to have had sore throats and headaches. Even dizziness. Some have told me about red residue outside after seeing a red cloud on Monday,” Salone said. “It’s awful that no one has come out to see how we’re doing.”

Calling CITGO’s actions ” irresponsible” the groups complained in a July letter to Mark Vickery, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that the state agency erroneously claimed there were no community members adversely affected by the release of chemicals from the CITGO fire.

“CITGO responded to this serious event in typical fashion, they attempted to minimize this event to the local community,” said Suzie Canales, executive director of Citizens for Environmental Justice.

“This event supports our position for the need of a buffer zone – to relocate, at a fair price, the people that want to move,” Canales said. “It is too dangerous to live adjacent to CITGO, a repeat offender and convicted criminal.”

In June 2007, a federal jury in Corpus Christi found CITGO guilty of two felony criminal violations of the Clean Air Act for operating two huge open top tanks without installing the controls required to prevent the emission of volatile organic compounds, including benzene, a known carcinogen.

Dr. Neil Carman, chemist and Clean Air Program director for Sierra Club, said, “Corpus Christi has the single highest concentration of oil refineries in the U.S. using hydrofluoric acid, an extremely dangerous chemical as a catalyst in the alkylation units, a chemical which poses the single worst-case accidental release scenario and makes it even more hazardous for citizens living along refinery row.”

“CITGO has failed to report toxic environmental releases of hydrofluoric acid to the U.S. EPA for the last 20 years, except for its serious accidents,” said Carman, “and may be fudging as badly as it did with its benzene tank releases it was criminally convicted of under the federal Clean Air Act.”

The Chemical Safety Board teams are empowered to look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.

The Board does not issue citations or fines but makes safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies.

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