The Santa Fe Springs fire chief is postponing plans to ask two oil refineries to upgrade equipment for preventing dangerous hydrofluoric acid spills despite a recent leak that injured seven people.
Chief Bob Wilson said he is hesitant to ask the companies to spend an estimated $2 million each on safety equipment because the South Coast Air Quality Management District is considering banning the acid, which leaked from a broken pipe at Powerine Oil Co. on Jan. 13, sending workers to the hospital.
“We are waiting to see what AQMD recommends,” Wilson said, adding that the issue is expected to be discussed at a meeting of air quality officials this spring.
If the air quality agency decides to wait several years before banning the chemical, the Fire Department probably will require Powerine and Golden West Refinery to make some improvements in their equipment, but the changes would not be as elaborate as city emergency officials had planned.
“We don’t want the refineries to spend money that could be used elsewhere,” Wilson said. “They don’t have the resources of bigger refineries,” and they don’t have the money to waste.
Members of a citizens group in Whittier, which is north of the refineries, have expressed concern over the use of hydrofluoric acid. The acid is labeled “acutely hazardous” by the federal government. Exposures to concentrations as low as 50 parts per million for 30 minutes can be fatal.
Helen Rahder, a community activist and spokeswoman for the Whittier Conservancy, said the city should order Powerine and Golden West to upgrade their safety equipment immediately. If a major hydrofluoric acid spill occurred at one of the Santa Fe Springs refineries, a dangerous vapor cloud could drift into surrounding communities--including Norwalk, La Mirada and Whittier.
“A toxic spill does not stop at city borders,” Rahder said in an interview. “Whatever happens in Santa Fe Springs directly affects Whittier. I don’t care if it (the upgrades) wipe the oil companies dry, it’s a matter of public health.”
Whittier Mayor Victor Lopez said he plans to discuss the issue with the city staff.
“If there is a danger, there ought to be safety measures,” Lopez said.
Despite Wilson’s decision to wait for AQMD’s decision on the fate of hydrofluoric acid, the two oil companies say they already are looking for ways to upgrade emergency sprinkler systems and install special tanks to contain acid leaks.
Powerine President A.L. Gualtieri said his company wants to improve the emergency system later this summer.
“We’re not going to wait (for the AQMD),” Gualtieri said. “We are going to do the improvements on our own.”
John T. Miller, a vice-president for Golden West, said his company is studying the issue and has not decided on a timetable for the improvements.
Meanwhile, Powerine and Golden West have on hand between 5,000 and 12,200 gallons of hydrofluoric acid--among the most dangerous chemicals used in making gasoline--without adequate emergency systems to handle a major spill, according to an AQMD report.
For example, Powerine has a 1,500-gallon sprinkling system that can contain 90% of a 38-gallon spill. Golden West has a 3,900-gallon system that can stop 90% of a 98-gallon spill, according to the AQMD.
In the largest known accidental release, a cloud of hydrogen fluoride--the acid’s gaseous form--forced the evacuation of 4,000 people in Texas City, Tex., on Oct. 30, 1987, after a crane at the Marathon Petroleum Co. refinery dropped a piece of heavy equipment on a pipe leading to a tank containing hydrofluoric acid. An estimated 6,000 gallons were released over several hours. Several hundred people were hospitalized.
According to the AQMD, the Texas refinery had a 4,000-gallon emergency sprinkler system that could stop 90% of a 100-gallon hydrofluoric acid spill, not nearly enough to contain the 1987 spill.
Shortly after the Texas incident, the AQMD formed a task force to examine the use of hydrofluoric acid in Southern California refineries.
At a January meeting, the air quality agency suggested banning hydrofluoric acid and using sulfuric acid in its place. According to air quality officials, sulfuric acid is safer than hydrofluoric acid because it has to be heated before it turns into a deadly cloud. Hydrofluoric acid, if spilled, will form a vapor cloud at room temperature. “It’s an acutely hazardous material,” said Edward Camarena, the deputy executive officer for operations at the AQMD. “It seems prudent to phase it out, wherever possible.”
Camarena said the Jan. 13 accident at Powerine is an example of the danger. Seven workers at the refinery were injured, two seriously, when a corroded pipe holding a small amount of the toxic acid ruptured, creating a vapor cloud that employees diluted with water and stopped from drifting outside the refinery.
“This seems to me that this is an unnecessary risk,” Camarena said. He said only four refineries in the state--all in Los Angeles County--use the dangerous acid. Five others in Southern California use sulfuric acid instead of hydrofluoric acid.
The AQMD’s suggestion to ban hydrofluoric acid sparked heated criticism from some fire and oil officials at the meeting last month, forcing air quality officials to postpone consideration of banning the substance until the spring.
“The AQMD needs to look at the ramifications of using sulfuric acid before making a decision,” Wilson said. “Right now we have not seen the evidence one way or another.”
The two Santa Fe Springs refineries have used the acid without major problems since they were established in the 1940s, Wilson said.
Wilson said he believes hydrofluoric acid can continue to be used safely, if sprinklers, spill tanks and other monitoring equipment is used to stop leaks.
In addition, Wilson said, refineries would have to use 150 times the amount of sulfuric acid to obtain the same effect as hydrofluoric acid. He said Powerine receives one truckload a month of hydrofluoric acid and Golden West receives four shipments a year by train. If the refineries switched to sulfuric acid, they would each need six trucks a day to deliver the chemical and remove the waste, which is recycled. There is about 250 times more waste from sulfuric acid than hydrofluoric acid.
“That’s the reason I’m having such a hard time with this,” said Wilson, who has been placed in charge of sorting out the issue for the city. “There are advantages and disadvantages to both. There are no easy answers. We just try for what’s best.”
NEXT STEP Officials of the South Coast Air Quality Management District will meet this spring to discuss whether hydrofluoric acid should be banned in Southern California oil refineries. Air quality officials say it would be safer to use the less-dangerous sulfuric acid instead of hydrofluoric acid, labeled “acutely hazardous” by the federal government.