Trade union United Steelworkers (USW) is calling for the phaseout of hydrogen fluoride, an acid used as a catalyst in the alkylation unit for high-octane petroleum production, stating that the chemical is health hazard to workers in petroleum refineries.
The demand for the ban comes at a time when several petroleum refineries this year had incidents of HF release including last month’s incident at ExxonMobil refinery in Joliet, Ill. According to the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), recent reported releases include those at the CITGO refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, on July 19, 2009, and at the Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 11, 2009.
USW said solid-state catalysts offer a safer alternative but are currently at the pilot plant stage and have not been used commercially yet for the alkylation process. One-third refineries reportedly used hydrogen fluoride while the other two-thirds use sulfuric acid as a catalyst.
“Hydrogen fluoride turns into hydrofluoric acid when it is in contact with moisture and becomes an extremely corrosive liquid and contact poison that burns skin, tissue and eyes. It rapidly penetrates tissues and can cause systemic toxicity, damaging the heart and lungs and causing death. Under the right conditions, a large release could form a lethal plume of acid vapors that could extend for miles downwind, putting thousands of people at risk.” – USW
Sulfuric acid can also burn skin, tissue and lungs although is somewhat less toxic, the USW said. The group plans to discuss with the petroleum industry other alternatives to the use of hydrogen fluoride and said that if necessary, will also work through the regulatory agencies and Congress to get the issue resolved.
The group also plans a mid-September meeting between the local and international union, the Sierra Club and Citizens for Environmental Justice in Corpus Christi, Texas.
USW claims to be the largest industrial union in North America representing workers employed in metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining, atomic energy and the service sector.
[Photo from HazmatHelper.com]