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American Bhopal: The refinery disaster that will probably kill thousands of us

Pictures of some of the residents who died in the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster

PortandTerminal.com, December 4, 2019

In 1984 a gas leak at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, India exposed half a million people living nearby to deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas.  Estimates vary on how many people it killed. The official immediate death toll was 2,259. Others estimate that 8,000 died within two weeks, and another 8,000 or more have since died from gas-related diseases.

Closer to home, last June fire at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery in South Philly caused an explosion that was felt for miles. The fireball it generated was so big and so hot that the explosion was seen by a weather satellite overhead. While dramatic, the explosion itself wasn’t the scary part of the incident. The scary part is just how close we came to having a Bhopal type disaster of our own right here on American soil.

READ: “Damn, this is bad” Philly mayor reacts to terminal fire

Hydrofluoric Acid

The explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery happened close to where a large volume of hydrofluoric acid (HF) was stored. The fire reportedly started in a vat of butane, a byproduct of refining crude oil into gasoline and other fuels, and it was this vat that appears to have exploded. Had the HF caught fire too it would have caused a huge hydrofluoric acid cloud.

Bhopal, India (1984). Lingering gas cloud settles on the surrounding neighborhoods. At least 2,259 were killed immediately following the gas release

Had that happened, in all likelihood, hundreds if not thousands of people in the densely populated South Philly neighborhoods near the refinery would have been exposed to the gas cloud and died excruciating deaths. The image below is one of the LEAST graphic images we could find that demonstrates HF’s effect on the human body.

New England Journal of Medicine: Hydrofluoric acid burn

It doesn’t take much HF to kill you.  Fatalities have been reported from skin exposure to as little as 2.5% of body surface area. Major organs or systems that are especially vulnerable to damage are the heart, liver, kidneys and nerves.

“If that had exploded, you would have had a huge hydrofluoric acid cloud, which has all sorts of negative health effects depending on exposure. We would have had to evacuate a 7- to 10-mile radius, that’s 1.1 million people. It would have been catastrophic.”

 PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur

At lower concentrations, death can still occur if you are exposed to HF and not treated quickly enough. HF interferes with nerve function, so burns from lower concentrations may not be initially painful. Accidental exposures can go unnoticed for hours or even days, delaying treatment and increasing the extent and seriousness of the injury.

What does the Government have to say about Hydrofluoric Acid?

Just how dangerous would a cloud of hydrofluoric acid be? Here’s what the American government had to say in a Report to Congress on the matter.

An accidental release of HF from one of these industrial facilities could have severe consequences. HF is toxic to humans, flora and fauna In certain doses and can be lethal as demonstrated by documented workplace accidents. The potentially high concentration of HF in these dense vapor and aerosol clouds could pose a significant threat to the public, especially in those instances where HF is handled at facilities located in densely populated areas.

Hydrogen Final Fluoride Study, Report to Congress, FINAL REPORT, Section 112(n)(6)

Hydrogen Final Fluoride Study, Report to Congress, FINAL REPORT, Section 112(n)(6)

Now for the bad news

Up until this point, this has been a good news story. The explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions last June didn’t come in contact with the HL tanks at the refinery, ignite them and create a deadly cloud of gas. Thousands or even “just” hundreds of people weren’t killed in the incident. Heck, they even shut down the refinery after the incident so that it won’t happen again.

READ: Ticking time bomb to shut. Philly oil refinery to close after fire and explosions

The bad news is that it will almost certainly happen again sometime, somewhere else soon.

HF is used Industrially in large quantities throughout the United States (over 200,000 tons per year) and in a great number of applications across a broad range of Industries (over 500 facilities).

Hydrogen Final Fluoride Study, Report to Congress, FINAL REPORT, Section 112(n)(6)

Philadelphia Energy Solutions was just one of 46 refineries in the U.S. that continues to use the chemical compound. Although there were some disputes about the future of the refinery, which has since been shut down, just about everyone involved can agree that the use of hydrofluoric acid is a threat to American safety.

Many old refineries such as the ones in the map above still use HFL (hydrofluoric acid) technology. Hydrofluoric acid is used in the alkylation unit to make gasoline blendstocks called alkylates that boost the gasoline’s octane level. Octane is what gives gasoline its pep. And Americans love peppy cars.

Like clock-work

Smoke and fire is visible from the TPC Group Port Neches Operations explosion on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019, in Port Neches

Last week’s refinery explosion at the TPC Group’s Port Neches, Texas, chemical plant is a stark reminder that refinery incidents happen like clockwork. How soon until there is a major incident at one of the other 45 refineries that still use Hydrofloric Acid in America? And whose neighborhood will it occur in next time? Yours? Mine?

Do you feel lucky, Punk?

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