USW’s Beevers Warns Of Toxic HF Fumes Threat From Refineries

WASHINGTON —The threat of a rapidly spreading toxic cloud of hydrofluoric acid (HF) fumes from an accident at one of 50 big U.S. oil refineries is so great that the resulting disaster would be equivalent of another Bhopal, the infamous Union Carbide chemical release accident in India that sickened millions and killed thousands, a top Steelworkers official says.

And, adds Gary Beevers, the head of the USW sector that includes oil refinery workers, the oil industry refuses to admit it – or do anything about it.

In the U.S. version of Bhopal, a new USW report adds, the HF threat looms from two refineries in Lemont and Channahon, Ill., over southern Chicago and its south suburbs and from the St. Paul Park Marathon Oil plant over the Twin Cities.

HF also threatens workers and residents around Philadelphia from three refineries along the Delaware River, from a Marathon refinery over Canton, Ohio, from four plants over New Orleans and from two more over Texas City, Texas, among other refinery sites nationwide. All told, 26.1 million people around the U.S. are at risk.

Beevers compared the HF threat to the Bhopal disaster in a talk with Press Asso-ciates Union News Service after outlining the threat in an April 16 press conference.

HF is used to refine gasoline in a process called “alkylation,” to make the fuel burn more cleanly. But HF is highly toxic and an accidental release can cause deep severe burns, damage a person‘s eyes, skin, nose, throat and respiratory system.

And wind-blown clouds of HF can easily and quickly spread over wide areas, accounting for the high numbers of people at risk should one of the 50 plants release it in an accident. The average refinery stores 212,000 concentrated pounds of HF.

So far, the Steelworkers report, the nation has been lucky. Six HF releases from 2004-12 hospitalized or severely injured seven workers, four with severe burns. Ano-ther, in 1987, sent 900 people to the hospital in Marathon City, Texas, and 50 square blocks were evacuated. At all seven, casualties would have been higher if winds blew.

Beevers released and discussed the report during the “Green Jobs, Good Jobs,” conference in D.C., which the Steelworkers co-hosted. A key conference theme was uniting workers and environmentalists against common enemies, corporations and their political puppets, whose actions greatly harm them economically and environmentally.

For Beevers, whose sector released the Risk Too Great: Hydrofluoric Acid In U.S. Refineries report, the refiners top those industries whose practices threaten workers and communities nationwide. The report is available from USW, online.

HF “is a safe enough chemical as long as it’s contained, but we’re afraid the industry doesn’t want to contain it,” Beevers said. The report’s outside experts, surveying the refineries, documented that claim by exposing numerous leaks and flaws.

Instead, the refineries are 60 years old or more, their HF tanks and pipes are aging and leaky, and they’re chronically understaffed – and especially short of workers trained to find and stop such leaks before they spread.

The reason for such a lax attitude is not greed, but power, Beevers explained. The refiners don’t want anyone – “least of all a little ol’ union like us,” he said in his Texas drawl, “telling them what to do.”

They especially “don’t want government getting involved,” but that’s what it may take to contain the HF threat, Beevers warned. Fines mean nothing to a firm like ExxonMobil, with $40 billion in profits last year, he noted. “But a threat to shut them down would” he said of dangerous refineries. Government lacks that power, however.

The other event that could change industry behavior is a particularly huge and fatal accident, but Beevers doesn’t want that. The point of USW’s report, he said, is to publicize the threat before that happens – and force the refiners to change and government to further regulate them by ordering such change.

-PAI