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Experts Warn of Lethal Risk Posed by Acid in L.A. Refineries

October 20, 1988|JEFFREY L. RABIN | Times Staff Writer

An environmentalist and a research scientist told a legislative hearing Wednesday that use of acutely toxic hydrofluoric acid at Los Angeles-area oil refineries poses a potentially deadly threat to nearby residents.

"Most of us live in blissful ignorance of the kind of hazards we are exposed to," said Fred Millar of the Environmental Policy Institute, a nonprofit group based in Washington. He warned that accidental release of the acid could cause as great a danger as the gas cloud from a Union Carbide plant that claimed the lives of 2,800 people at Bhopal, India, in December, 1984.

"We haven't had a Bhopal partly because of pure luck in terms of the way the wind was blowing," Millar said, referring to a hydrofluoric acid accident last October in Texas City, Tex.

Ronald R. Koopman, a research scientist for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who has been conducting industry-sponsored tests on the chemical in the Nevada desert, painted a bleak picture of federal response to his 2-year-old research.

Koopman discovered in 1986 that hydrofluoric acid releases posed a greater threat than previously thought because it forms a ground-hugging toxic gas. He said that the U.S. Department of Transportation's guidebook for emergency response to accidents involving hydrofluoric acid contains "very inadequate" information on the area that should be evacuated.

Under questioning by Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), Koopman said he has testified twice before a congressional committee and personally wrote and met with a top official of the federal transportation agency to warn of the problems with the guidebook but "nothing was done."

Budget Constraints

Koopman said he was told that the Department of Transportation had severe budget constraints and money was not available to make changes in the emergency response manual. "I do not think they are doing their job very responsibly," Koopman said.

He said it is a "fair assumption" that law enforcement and fire departments across California still do not have access to "the best information available on evacuation" in the case of a hydrofluoric acid accident.

And he said that an accident involving a truck carrying hydrofluoric acid would pose a "potentially worse" problem than an accident at a plant better equipped to deal with the chemical.

Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne), who chaired the joint legislative committee hearing in Carson City Hall, said he was particularly concerned by the danger posed by tank trucks hauling hydroflouric acid over crowded freeways and he suggested that legislation may be needed to require notification to the Highway Patrol when shipments are made.

Koopman said the oil industry is developing ways to spray massive amounts of water on an acid spill to knock down the vapor cloud.

The most serious accident involving the acid in this country occurred at Marathon Petroleum's Texas City refinery last October. It unleashed a cloud of hydrogen flouride gas that forced the evacuation of several thousand residents and turned trees from green to brown 4 miles from the plant.

A massive explosion and fire at the Mobil Oil Corp. refinery in Torrance last November was caused by an excess of hydrofluoric acid in a unit that produces unleaded gasoline. An estimated 100 pounds of the acid was spilled during the blast, which triggered a two-day fire. None of the gas escaped the refinery grounds, according to air quality officials.

The back-to-back accidents in Texas and Torrance have focused new attention on the dangers of hydrofluoric acid and prompted formation of a South Coast Air Quality Management District task force to consider phasing out use of the chemical in the Los Angeles area.

In addition to the Mobil refinery, hydrofluoric acid is used at the Union Pacific Resource refinery in Wilmington, the Golden West and Powerine refineries in Santa Fe Springs and by Allied-Signal Co. in El Segundo.

The AQMD estimates that between 102,000 and 127,000 gallons of the acid is now being handled or stored at the five facilities. Tests conducted in the Nevada desert in 1986 found that an accidental spill of 1,000 gallons of the acid could form a low-lying cloud that could be lethal to all exposed within 5 miles.

Millar told a joint hearing of the Senate Committee on Toxics and Public Safety Management and the Assembly Subcommittee on Safety in the Workplace that the acid is as deadly as the methyl isocyanate released in Bhopal.

He warned that there are no federal, state or local standards to determine when a refinery or chemical plants pose such a hazard to the public that they ought to be shut down. "There is nobody minding the store," Millar said.

Assemblyman Dave Elder (D-Long Beach) was skeptical of industry safety measures, noting that some refineries had dug trenches to capture the acid if it spilled, only to learn that "this stuff didn't behave the way it was supposed to behave."

Elder called such an approach "kind of like the Maginot Line of toxic control" and suggested that there is not much residents can do in the event of an accident except "get the hell out of the way."

But Mobil refinery plant manager Wyman D. Robb defended the refinery's safety record during the 40 years that hydrofluoric acid has been used.

In a detailed presentation, Robb said that Mobil has "never had an incident which has impacted the community."

And he said that Mobil employees have a healthy respect for the hazard posed by the chemical and are adequately trained to deal with any emergency that might arise.

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