What Is Hydrogen Fluoride?
Hydrogen Fluoride (HF) is a chemical used in the alkylation process of refining crude oil into its final products. HF is lethal when inhaled, and on contact causes severe burns, fluid buildup in the lungs, swelling of lung tissue, and other terrible symptoms.
The United Steelworkers Union, one of the largest unions which represent refinery workers, has strongly opposed the use of HF at oil facilities due to the severe risks it poses to workers at refineries and citizens in the communities these refineries reside.
A survey by United Steelworkers found that in a five year period, 21 refineries were responsible for 131 releases of hydrogen fluoride, proving that these refineries cannot be trusted with the responsibility of maintaining this dangerous chemical.
Despite this, fifty refineries in the United States continue to use this chemical, including the Husky Energy Refinery in Superior. At the Superior refinery, the hydrogen fluoride is stored two hundred feet from the tanks that burned in the fire on April 26th, 2018.
Are There Alternatives to hydrogen Fluoride? Are they Any Better?
Yes and yes!
Far safer and more effective technology exists, which is why Husky should have no trouble providing the citizens of Superior with a safer facility. Acceptable methods are ionic liquids and solid catalysts.
Ionic Liquids, Solid Acid and Sulfuric Acid
Ionikylation, a type of Ionic Liquids, is our pick for an alternative because it is has been proven on a commercial scale.
Ionic liquids (IL) can replace hydrogen fluoride in the alkylation process, as has been done at a Chevron refinery which is converting from HF to IL. It is important to note that in addition to being safer, IL also are more efficient than HF, allowing refineries using this method to save money over time.
Ionikylation is currently at the following facilities:
Deyan Chemical Co., Ltd. (100,000 tpy)
PetroChina Harbin (150,000 tpy)
PetroChina Golmud (50,000 tpy)
Sinopec Jiujiang (300,000 tpy)
Sulfuric acid is still an incredibly dangerous alternative for employees. Exposure can damage eyes, skin, and lungs, and can be lethal.
What About Modified Hydrogen Fluoride?
Other alternatives to HF do exist, such as Modified Hydrogen Fluoride (MHF) and Sulphuric Acid (SA). Despite industry claims, these still pose great risk to workers and community members.
Modified Hydrogen Fluoride (MHF)
MHF, while a less-volatile version of HF, poses the same risks. Activist groups in California oppose the use of this chemical in refineries in their communities, and studies by ExxonMobil show that just 5,000 pounds of MHF could be lethal to people within two miles of a release, and cause serious injury to people within 3.2 miles.
Is a Water Curtain an Acceptable Safety Measure for Hydrogen Fluoride?
Testing and real-life incidents have demonstrated that a water curtain, like the one used at the refinery in Superior, is not a reliable failsafe to bring down a Hydrogen Fluoride cloud during an accidental release.
How does a water curtain work?
“If you spray enough water, you dilute it,” said Ron Koopman, a retired scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a longtime researcher of toxic gas releases. “But it takes a lot of water, the water has to be applied perfectly to the cloud — and it has to be applied immediately.” [A big ask ]
Andeavor Refinery's [St Paul Park MN] assurances regarding the effectiveness of its water curtain mitigation mitigation system were undercut by the field experiment-based skepticism expressed in the Star Tribune 5-6-18 Below is a quote from the same foremost US expert on HF risks, former Lawrence Livermore physicist and Nevada field test director Dr. Ron Koopman:
“The biggest risk is financial. Converting to sulfuric acid costs tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on a refinery’s size, [Norton Engineering consultant Chris Steves said.]… Instead of converting, U.S. refineries have added water-based mitigation systems like the one in St. Paul Park to keep a hydrofluoric acid leak from morphing into a toxic cloud.
What's Wrong With the Existing Community Advisory Panel?
The Superior refinery has had a Community Advisory Panel for over twenty years, long before Husky owned this refinery. This may seem like a great piece of this refinery's commitment to our community. However, it is anything but.
Community Advisory Panels (CAP) are a post-Bhopal era PR project of the national chemical industry, a pretense of a dangerous facility's engagement with the community, hand-picked, un-democratic, and un-transparent. They are an effort to avoid more elected officials' safety regulations. Environmentalists all over the US have resigned from these groups in disgust.
The local CAP group is coordinated for Husky by a hired industry consultant PR firm, Ann Green Communications, which is from Charleston, WV. This allows Husky to choose who is represented on the advisory panel at their convenience. The members of the panel are not publicly-known. If citizens want to attend the meetings, the PR firm must be notified in advance.
We believe that the panel should be replaced with a panel which is made up of residents of both Superior and Duluth who are elected by the community, and this panel should meet regularly to be updated on refinery operations, safety incidents, and other relevant topics.
Is Demanding this Of Husky Unfair? What if they threaten to leave because of this?
No refinery in America has ever packed up and moved, and it is unlikely that this one will be the first. The construction of new refineries is an expensive and time-consuming process, and often is met with extreme community opposition. This means that building a new refinery to replace an existing one is a process that is far more difficult than it is worth.
Husky may threaten to close the refinery or leave if we demand change, but we can call their bluff. This Superior refinery is here to stay because of Minnesota and Wisconsin’s fossil fuel infrastructure and the refinery jobs are here to stay too, at least until the end of the Fossil Fuel era forces the shut down of the refinery. Because Superior, WI sits at a crucial point for fossil-fuel infrastructure, they need this refinery. Another oil company, Enbridge Energy, is also located in Superior and it's proximity creates demand for this refinery.