Article: Refinery Explosions Raise New Warnings About Deadly Chemical

Pollution // 10 mins

Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in Philadelphia on June 21. Experts say the explosions could have been far more devastating if deadly hydrogen fluoride had been released. Matt Rourke/AP

In the predawn hours of June 21, explosions at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia shook houses, sent fireballs into the air and woke up nearby residents.

"Three loud explosions, one after the other, boom, boom boom!" says David Masur, who lives about two miles from the plant and has two young kids. "It's a little nerve-wracking."

Masur watched as the refinery spewed black smoke above the city, easily visible from his home. But what he didn't know at the time was just how close he and his family came to getting exposed to hydrogen fluoride, one of the deadliest chemicals used by refiners and other industrial manufacturers.

Philadelphia Energy Solutions knows that's a possibility. Its worst-case disaster scenario includes 143,262 pounds of hydrogen fluoride released over 10 minutes, which could travel as a toxic cloud for more than 7 miles and impact more than a million people, including in schools, homes, hospitals, prisons, playgrounds, parks and a wildlife sanctuary.

City, state and federal officials say none of the air monitors in or around the refinery — or the air samples collected by the city's health department — detected the chemical, often referred to as HF. And a spokeswoman for Philadelphia Energy Solutions says no workers were exposed.

The explosion destroyed the refinery's alkylation unit, where crude oil is converted to high octane gas, and led to the planned closure of the financially troubled plant.

But two other refineries in the Philadelphia region also use HF, as do some four dozen around the country. The Philadelphia explosions, along with similar accidents in the past four years, are reviving concerns about inadequate safety measures and calls to end the use of the deadly chemical.

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Published on NPR on July 19, 2019.