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Advocates Push EPA to Ban Chemical Used by Oil Refineries

Aug. 21, 2019, 4:36 PM

Oil refineries’ use of a chemical that helps them turn petroleum into many other chemicals must be banned, advocates told the EPA in a recent rulemaking petition.

Manufacturers of the chemical included 3M, the BASF Corp., Chemours Co., Dow Corning Corp., and Honeywell International Inc.

A ban on hydrofluoric acid is “necessary to ensure that the highly toxic substance is no longer used in oil refineries, given its inherently dangerous nature, the occurrence of ‘near miss’ accidents, the availability of safer alternatives, and the potential for terrorist attacks targeting chemical plants,” Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) wrote in a petition the Environmental Protection Agency released Aug. 20.

The agency will seek comment on the petition’s request in a forthcoming Federal Register notice.

Ten billion to 20 billion pounds of hydrofluoric acid were made in the U.S. or imported into the country in 2015, the most recent year for which the EPA has such information.

The American Petroleum Institute did not immediately reply to a question on how a ban could affect oil refiners. American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers did not have an immediate comment.

Hydrofluoric acid is used as a catalyst to break down, or “crack,” petroleum into other chemicals, according to a World Health Organization agency.

It also is a corrosive gas that can destroy living tissues if it penetrates through unprotected skin. Sufficient inhalation or other exposures can induce nausea, vomiting, and make the heart beat too slowly, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

PEER cited those and other health problems in their request that the EPA use its Toxic Substances Control Act authority to ban hydrofluoric acid.

They also focused on chemical accidents that have occurred near facilities storing or using hydrofluoric acid. The consequences of those accidents would have been even worse had the explosions reached the hydrofluoric acid, PEER said.

Among these was a Feb. 18, 2015, blast at an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, Calif., which could have resulted in a “potentially catastrophic” release of hydrofluoric acid into the community, Vanessa Sutherland, then chief of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said at the time.

In 2013, the catalyst was being used at more than one-third of the nation’s 148 oil refineries, PEER said, citing a United Steelworkers report.

The advocacy group’s petition did not address other uses of hydrofluoric acid. These include its use to make semiconductor chips, etch glass, remove rust, and clean brass and crystal.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Steven Gibb at sgibb@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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