US labour union seeks end to hydrogen fluoride in refineries

31 August 2009 21:19  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS news)--The United Steelworkers (USW) union on Monday called for a US phase out of hydrogen fluoride alkylation units, citing safety reasons.

“Hydrogen fluoride is such a deadly component, and there are new and safer technologies available,” said USW vice president Gary Beevers, who is in charge of the union’s oil sector.

“It’s a matter of health and safety to us,” he added. “It’s a matter of money to the industry. We think they should change to a safer alternative.”

The USW represents more than 30,000 US refinery workers.

The National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), however, dismissed the USW’s complaints as a "manufactured opportunity to lobby through the press” while ignoring the science behind the facilities’ processes.

“Hydrogen fluoride is as safe as any other catalyst, and is a critical component in our members’ production operations,” NPRA president Charles Drevna said. “It appears to us that USW may be a victim of bad analysis provided by environmental activists, who for years have unsuccessfully promoted the concept of chemical substitution.

“You can’t simply switch hydrofluoric acid for something else,” he added. “Such a policy position could actually threaten the very jobs USW is seeking to protect.”

The NPRA also accused the USW of attempting to “seize an issue to make hay” in the aftermath of the USW’s walkout of a refinery-site-safety standards meeting in early August.

In this case, hydrogen fluoride is an acid used as a catalyst in the unit to make high-octane petroleum, and is deadly in large amounts, the USW said.

One-third of refineries use hydrogen fluoride, while the other two-thirds use sulphuric acid as a catalyst, according to the USW.

The USW said that sulphuric acid is safer, since it is somewhat less toxic and has much less potential to form a deadly vapour plume extending outside the refinery.

Solid-state catalysts offer promise as a safer alternative than both, but those are currently in the pilot stage and have yet to be used commercially for the alkylation process, the USW said.

The USW said it would discuss other alternatives to hydrogen fluoride with the refining industry and, if necessary, would take the issue through regulatory agencies and Congress.

On Friday, environmental groups Sierra Club and Citizens for Environmental Justice sent a letter to the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) requesting it to further investigate a refinery fire at Citgo’s Corpus Christi refinery in Texas that led to the release of nearly 4,000 pounds (1.8 tonnes) of hydrogen fluoride.

The fire at the 163,000 bbl/day refinery occurred on 19-20 July, and resulted in the largest hydrogen fluoride leak at the plant since 1988.

The USW cited that case and two others in its Monday press release.

A Citgo spokesman said early Monday that it supported the industry's general stance on the use of hydrofluoric acid in US refineries, as outlined by the NPRA and the American Petroleum Institute (API).

The Citgo official added that some of the hydrofluoric acid readings taken after the July fire were incorrect.

Additional reporting by Joe Kamalick

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