Three Kansas communities with a combined population equal to that of Lawrence are at risk of exposure to a chemical that can be 100 times more lethal than carbon monoxide.
The substance is hydrofluoric acid, which is used to make high-octane gasoline, and according to worst-case estimates that oil refiners in El Dorado, McPherson, and Coffeyville have provided to federal regulators, an accidental release could expose more than 92,000 nearby residents to dangerous levels through a toxic cloud. Within range are schools, residences, hospitals, and recreation areas.
“It’s a nasty product,” said El Dorado Fire Chief Ken Nakaten.
Kansas residents are not alone. According to a report released Feb. 24 by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News, at least 16 million Americans live within the potential path of a hydrofluoric acid release. The compound is commonly called HF.
Coffeyville Resources Refining & Marketing LLC, the Frontier Oil Corp. refinery in El Dorado, and National Cooperative Refinery Association in McPherson are among the 50 domestic refineries that still use HF instead of a safer alternative, according to the joint investigation.
Moreover, in reviewing U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data from the past five years, ABC and the Center found that 60 percent of the HF refineries combined for more than 1,000 willful, serious or repeat violations of federal rules designed to prevent fires, explosions and chemical releases. More than half were in one Texas refinery, where a 2005 explosion killed 15 workers and injured 180.
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting (MCIR), which is based near Kansas City, Mo., collaborated with the Center and ABC through the Investigative News Network, a 51-member consortium of non-partisan, nonprofit news organizations in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada.
In Coffeyville, the refinery estimates an HF cloud could carry 16 miles. That would cover the entire town, the surrounding areas, and all the schools, said Robert Morton, superintendent of the Coffeyville School District.
An early childhood education center is less than a mile from the refinery. And, the elementary school is about five miles away. With more than 1,000 students, Morton said the elementary is the largest in the state of Kansas - the result of a court-ordered desegregation effort.
A couple of months ago, Morton said, an explosion at the refinery shot some materials into the east side of town. "I know those things happen every once in awhile," he said. The school district, though, has not had any emergency situations due to the refinery, he said.
Still, Morton said, having the facility in town is unsettling, even though it is a large employer.
"There's always that concern when you have a refinery in your community," he said. "Just about anything can happen. It's a pretty volatile place."
HF exposure can be excruciating even when not deadly, said Tama Sawyer, director of the Poison Control Center at The University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan. Unlike other acids, HF penetrates deep into the body and disrupts cells by binding to the calcium they use for basic functioning. Heart cells are particularly dependent upon calcium, she said, so HF can cause severe cardiac problems.
Everyday contact can come through the use of products like rust removers, and Sawyer said fingernails sometimes must be removed to properly treat hand exposure.
“You have to do more than just irrigate the skin,” Sawyer said. “You have got to get in there and put calcium into that system, so that [the HF] gets calcium from what you are putting in it versus grabbing on to the calcium in the cells.”
According to Sawyer, the lowest lethal concentration of HF, based upon five minutes of inhalation in an enclosed space, is 50 parts per million. Under the same circumstances, the lowest lethal level of carbon monoxide is 5,000 parts per million.
With oil refineries, worst-case releases are measured in hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Critics like the United Steelworkers (USW) union, which represents 30,000 refinery workers, contend that companies still using HF do so because of money; estimates for shifting to a safer catalyst, such as sulfuric acid, run between $50 million and $150 million per refinery.
Such a change would be unnecessary, an industry representative told the Center and ABC. “There hasn’t been an HF release that has impacted communities,” said Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA).
Here’s how the Kansas refineries and their unions responded to questions about HF:
- Rafe Foster, the process safety management representative for USW Local 558, said safety precautions at the McPherson plant made use of HF defensible. He said any other comments would have to come from human resources executive Hope VonBorkenhagen. She said the company does not talk about ongoing operations and referred questions to the NPRA.
- An official at the Frontier refinery in El Dorado referred calls to its corporate office in Houston, Texas, where a spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment. An official with USW Local 241 in El Dorado directed questions to the national office.
- A spokeswoman for CVR Energy Inc., the parent company of the Coffeyville facility, declined to discuss the use of HF at that plant. In an e-mail, Angie Dasbach said CVR is in a “quiet period” mandated by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission in advance of an upcoming stock transaction, adding that CVR does not discuss day-to-day operations either. The company’s petroleum workers are covered by a collective bargaining agreement with six unions, but MCIR could not locate contact information for a union representative in Coffeyville.
As part of their investigation, the Center for Public Integrity and ABC found that regulation of the use of HF comes largely through OSHA’s workplace safety inspections. Some oversight comes through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which collects the worst-case-scenario reports filed by the refineries. In some communities around the country, environmental activists have succeeded in pressuring refineries to switch from HF to safer alternatives.
But in Kansas, HF has escaped the attention of government regulators, environmentalists, and academics.
An official with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said it doesn’t have oversight of the chemical. And even though the Conservation Division of the Kansas Corporation Commission regulates the production and exploration of oil and gas, its efforts are focused more on areas like drilling and plugging abandoned wells.
HF was unfamiliar to officials with the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, and professors in oil-related disciplines at Kansas State University in Manhattan and the University of Kansas in Lawrence said the acid was outside their areas of expertise.
One woman with some knowledge of HF is Sherry Davis, project coordinator of the Healthy Ecosystems-Healthy Communities Program at K-State.
Most refineries, she said in an e-mail, “work out emergency response planning to assure adequate leak detection, alarms, and evacuation plans to protect employees and citizens.” Plus, she said, oil refineries are just part of a modern landscape that also includes ammonia fertilizer tanks “all over rural America” and manufacturing facilities that produce everything from paint to airplanes.
“So chemical hazards are pretty ubiquitous,” she said.
Protecting the citizenry from these potentially harmful substances falls within the purview of fire chiefs like Nakaten in El Dorado and James Grimmett in Coffeyville. Like Davis, the two men expressed confidence in the refineries’ safety precautions in handling HF and their emergency response capabilities should an accident occur.
Both chiefs have decades of experience with their departments, and neither could remember a serious incident involving HF.
Grimmett understood industry concerns about the cost of converting to HF alternatives. If plants consider a switch to be too expensive, he said, “I can see that as being a huge reason, then, not to.”
Mike Sherry can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org