Last Friday, a massive fire and series of explosions at a refinery in Philadelphia, PA terrified residents, who reported hearing the explosions from miles away. The company responsible for operating the refinery, Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) attempted to downplay the damage from the explosions, stating that they were "thankful" that only a "few minor injuries" resulted. PES announced this Wednesday that it will be permanently closing the plant, one of the largest and oldest on the East Coast.
The city's Fire Department and Office of Emergency Management announced that the fire is currently under review by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Fire Marshal's Office, and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB).
While we will likely know more after these investigations have concluded, there have been concerns about the potential environmental ramifications of the fire. The source of the fire was the refinery's "Unit 433", an alkylation unit, which processes crude oil into fuels and other products. The crude oil processing relies on hydrogen fluoride as a catalyst.
Hydrogen fluoride is a chemical compound which contains fluorine. It can exist as a colorless gas or as a fuming liquid, or it can be dissolved in water (when dissolved in water, it is hydrofluoric acid). In addition to use in refineries, hydrogen fluoride is used to make refrigerants, herbicides, pharmaceuticals, aluminum, plastics, electrical components, and fluorescent light bulbs. Most commonly (60%) it is used in refrigerants. Hydrogen fluoride can be extremely toxic to humans. Breathing in hydrogen fluoride at high levels can cause death from an irregular heartbeat or fluid buildup in the lungs (pulmonary edema).
Despite the fact that city officials have announced no hydrogen fluoride escaped during the Philadelphia fire, the resulting investigations will put the focus on the use of the dangerous chemical in Philadelphia and across the country. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board reports that 50 of the nation's 150 refineries operate hydrogen fluoride alkylation units. The board has requested that the EPA revisit the effectiveness of existing regulations for the dangerous chemical and whether there are safer technologies available for alkylation.
Environmental injuries, such as inhalation of hydrogen fluoride, pose a serious risk, especially to those in certain occupations. The majority of environmental injuries occur in the workplace; certain work environments that are especially dangerous. These include:
- Heavy manufacturing,
- Electrical work,
- Farming, and
- Metal work.
These fields routinely use chemicals which can be hazardous to human health. Employers in these fields have a duty to create policies, procedures, and practices that protect employees from unnecessary risk. United Steelworkers, a union which represents workers at the PES refinery, has long called for the phasing out of hydrogen fluoride at U.S. refineries.