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Philadelphia may have gotten off lucky last week

PortandTerminal.com, June 23, 2019

The terrifying explosions and inferno at the Philadelphia refinery incident have renewed concerns about the oil industry’s use of a highly toxic chemical in densely populated areas. As we learning now, last week’s incident in Philly could have been far more deadly.

Philadelphia – By now you’ve probably seen the video and photos of last week’s dramatic refinery fire and explosions at Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES). Five refinery workers suffered minor injuries in the incident.

We are learning now that PES refinery uses a dangerous, old technology that allows it to continue to operate beyond its useful life.


Here’s the latest local coverage from The Philadelphia Inquirer’s coverage of the fire.

HEATHER KHALIFA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, @khalifaheather

With the fire finally out, investigators are set to begin their work into determining what caused the explosions and massive blaze at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery Friday. Here’s the latest on what we know.

  • The blast: An explosion followed by two others rocked the PES refinery next to the Platt Bridge in South Philadelphia about 4 a.m. Friday, triggering a massive fire. The explosion’s fireball was so intense and hot it was captured by a weather satellite in space. Five refinery workers suffered minor injuries.
  • Neighborhood impact: Residents living near the refinery — the largest on the East Coast — were advised to shelter in place, but the advisory was lifted after a few hours when officials reported that tests for 61 chemical compounds determined the air was was safe.
  • The chemicals: PES said three explosions “impacted” a unit that produces alkylate, used to boost gasoline octane. The refinery complex has two alkylation units, and the unit that was involved in the conflagration uses hydrogen fluoride — a deadly chemical also known as hydrofluoric acid — as a catalyst. A 2009 release of just 22 pounds of the chemical at the South Philadelphia refinery sent 13 contract workers to the hospital. But officials said none was released in Friday’s explosion.

The Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery


300,000 people who live within 3 miles (5 km) of the largest and oldest oil refinery on the East Coast

The Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery is located in South Philly. There are 300,000 people who live within just three miles (5 km) of the refinery. The refinery is the largest on the east coast and worryingly, the oldest as well.

The PES Philadelphia Refining Complex has been “part of the neighborhood” in South Philadelphia for over 150 years and is closely tied to the growth of the American oil industry in the 19th century.

Company website

The refinery’s owner PES Holdings, a unit of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, filed for bankruptcy in January of 2018. It was able to emerge from bankruptcy by August of last year after restructuring $635 million of debt.

Hydrofluoric acid

Many old refineries like the one in Philadelphia 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.

Hydrofluoric acid is used to help boost gasoline octane levels that you see at the pump

Hydrofluoric acid is incredibly dangerous. If it gets on the skin, it can kill you. If someone gets hydrofluoric acid on them, medical attention is needed, as just small amounts are very toxic. As a gas, it is an acute poison that may immediately and permanently damage the lungs and the corneas of the eyes. 

Brief exposure (5 min) to 50 to 250 ppm of hydrofluoric acid may be fatal to humans.


Exposure to higher concentrations can result in serious damage to the lungs, and fatal pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) may develop after a delay of several hours. Brief exposure (5 min) to 50 to 250 ppm may be fatal to humans. Ingestion of HF can produce severe injury to the mouth, throat, and gastrointestinal tract and may be fatal.

HFL( hydrofluoric acid) technology is basically outlawed but older units are permitted to operate. Incredibly deadly & dangerous.

Industry source

What could have happened in Philadelphia

Bhopal, India (1984) – a major gas leak occurred at Union Carbide pesticide plant in a densely populated urban area. Over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas. The death toll was 2,259

Had the hydrofluoric acid alkylation equipment at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery spewed out a toxic cloud into the surrounding neighborhood, then last week’s incident could have been far more deadly.

Hydrofluoric acid alkylation units have been involved in three near-misses of gas releases at other refineries at cities in California, Texas and Wisconsin, according to safety officials.

Fifty, or more than a third, of 135 U.S. refineries operate hydrofluoric acid alkylation units, according to the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which investigates industrial fires and explosions.

Hydrofluoric acid alkylation units at refineries have been criticized by both labor unions and environmental groups for the potential risk the acid poses to plant workers and surrounding communities.

The United Steelworkers union (USW), whose members work at major refineries, launched a campaign in 2010 to end the oil industry’s use of HF. In 2013, the USW found 26 million people in the United States were at risk of HF exposure from a refinery accident.

Safer technology exists

Newer plants don’t use hydrofluoric acid in their alkylation units.

In April, the CSB called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revisit a study on HF’s use and the potential to replace it with another process after hearing from worried residents during its probe of a 2018 refinery fire.

The oil industry though has rejected calls to convert HF alkylation units to sulfuric acid (a much safer technology), which does not form a low-hanging cloud that can drift into neighborhoods, saying the cost would be too high and alternatives not well developed.

The petroleum industry doesn’t dispute the well-known dangers of hydrofluoric acid

Only five refinery workers suffered minor injuries in last week’s incident. Philadelphia may have gotten off lucky with such a low casualty count after last week’s horrific incident.

Summary

The investigation into the massive explosion and raging fire at the PES refinery in Philadelphia began Monday.

The cause and origin of the fire of Friday’s blast will be investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and the fire marshal’s office, officials said.

Reuters has said that Philadelphia Energy Solutions recently scaled back a maintenance program that had been scheduled for January, and it suspended employee bonuses.

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