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Officials Probe Chemical Leak That Injured 7 at Refinery

February 11, 1990|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA FE SPRINGS — State and local officials are investigating a chemical leak at the Powerine Oil Co. that sent seven refinery workers to the hospital but that was not reported to the Fire Department, an apparent violation of state law.

The incident occurred Jan. 13 when a corroded pipe holding toxic hydrofluoric acid ruptured, creating a dangerous vapor cloud that employees diluted with water and stopped from drifting outside the refinery, according to oil company officials.

The accident was not reported to the Santa Fe Springs Fire Department, which, according to state law, should have been alerted of the hazard immediately. It also was not reported to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which requests such information as a courtesy. Powerine's failure to quickly notify authorities has angered the AQMD and local emergency officials, who have been searching for ways to prevent such spills.

"We should have been told about it," said Edward Camarena, deputy director of the AQMD, which is compiling a report on the dangers of hydrofluoric acid at oil refineries. "They (refinery officials) were here on Jan. 31 and expressed a willingness to cooperate and share information . . . then they keep this from us."

A.L. Gualtieri, president of the refinery, said during an interview last week that he did not think the incident was serious enough to immediately report to the local Fire Department. Less than a pound of acid mixed with hydrocarbon leaked from the pipe, Gualtieri said.

"Our failure to notify the Fire Department on a timely basis about this incident was not an attempt on the part of Powerine to cover up this incident," Gualtieri recently wrote in a letter to Santa Fe Springs Fire Chief Robert Wilson. "Only a small quantity of the hydrofluoric acid was involved and none of this material left the refinery site."

He said refinery officials contacted the state Department of Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the accident on Jan. 15.

The city Fire Department, the AQMD and Cal/OSHA are conducting separate investigations of the incident.

Wilson said the city could fine Powerine up to $25,000 a day for failing to report the leak directly to the Fire Department. He said the Fire Department first learned of the accident several days after it happened from a nurse at the hospital where the injured workers were taken. The Fire Department then contacted the oil company to ask about the incident, Wilson said.

He said the accident could easily have become "out-of-hand" and the Fire Department should have been warned about the danger.

Hydrofluoric acid, used in the process of turning crude oil into unleaded gasoline, is labeled "acutely hazardous" by the federal government. Exposure to concentrations as low as 50 parts per million for 30 minutes can be fatal.

In the largest known accidental release, a cloud of hydrogen fluoride--the acid's gaseous form--forced the evacuation of 4,000 people in Texas City, Tex., on Oct. 30, 1987, after a crane at the Marathon Petroleum Co. refinery dropped a piece of heavy equipment on a pipe leading to a tank containing hydrofluoric acid. An estimated 6,000 gallons were released over several hours. Several hundred people were hospitalized.

According to Wilson, only minor accidents involving hydrofluoric acid have occurred at Powerine and the city's second refinery, Golden West.

Wilson said hydrofluoric acid spills can quickly escalate into deadly situations, and the Fire Department should be called, no matter how small the spill may seem.

"They (refineries) may think they can control it, but sometimes they can't and we need to get on it," Wilson said.

The incident at Powerine occurred about 11:30 a.m. when a corroded pipe ruptured as workers were trying to replace it, Gualtieri said. Residue in the pipe escaped, forming the vapor cloud.

Two workers had respiratory injuries and were hospitalized for two days. The other victims, some of whom received acid burns, were treated at the hospital for their injuries and released, Gualtieri said. He said all of them are back at work.

Camarena said the Powerine accident further confirms his concerns about the use of hydrofluoric acid.

Last month, the AQMD staff recommended that hydrofluoric acid be banned in refineries and sulfuric acid be used in its place. But the suggestion sparked heated criticism from some fire and oil officials, who wanted more evidence that sulfuric acid is safer. The debate forced air quality officials to postpone consideration of banning hydrofluoric acid.

The issue is expected to be discussed again at a meeting in the spring.

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