Fuel refineries use a series of chemical reactions to arrive at the final product. Hydrogen fluoride is used in the oil refining process and causes a reaction, called alkylation, to make fuel from unrefined oil. Hydrogen fluoride gas readily reacts with water to form highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid. Two workers were seriously hurt when an explosion recently occurred at an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California. The incident was a near miss for a toxic hydrofluoric acid release.
Hydrofluoric acid, when vaporized, will form droplets in a low-level cloud that can travel along the ground for several miles. The effects of exposure are serious; it can burn the lungs and penetrate the skin to damage bones. A hydrofluoric acid release can also cause extensive property damage. Due to the potential catastrophic impact on workers, first responders, the environment, and residents in surrounding areas, all serious chemical accidents are investigated by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB). Its purpose is to evaluate each chemical release incident in the U.S. to find its root cause.
Although hampered by resistance from ExxonMobil leadership, the CSB investigators were able to deduce that the accident happened during a non-routine procedure. When problems with an expander device rose, the fluid catalytic cracking unit was put on idle. Steam was then pumped into the reactor to prevent backflow of hydrocarbons into a distillation column.
Ultimately, hydrocarbons leaked into the distillation column from other equipment and reached the reactor connected to an electrostatic precipitator (ESP) device. The ESP caused sparks and ignited hydrocarbons, resulting in an explosion, which released a dust cloud extending for miles and projected large debris around the site.
Near miss accidents need to be taken seriously. Investigators found that debris landed on scaffolding around the alkylation unit and narrowly missed the tank holding thousands of pounds of hydrofluoric acid. If ruptured, the tank would have released a hydrofluoric acid cloud.
An analysis of the failure found that ExxonMobil did not adequately evaluate process hazards. Safeguards were not implemented despite the known threat of ignitable combustibles reaching the device. In addition, safety precautions at the site that required a written variance before deviating from normal operating conditions were deficient. The variance document used to address the non-routine procedure was outdated. It did not reflect changes in use of the expander that happened after the variance document was developed.
In addition to the CSB, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigators were on the scene to evaluate workplace hazards. They found violations of OSHA’s standard for managing processes using highly hazardous chemicals. The standard requires a system of Process Safety Management to proactively identify, evaluate, and mitigate or prevent conditions in processing equipment that can result in chemical releases from failures in the process, procedure, or equipment.
If you were exposed to toxic chemicals in the workplace, the Georgetown chemical exposure lawyers at Jacobs & Crumplar, P.A. can help. We will review your case and help you obtain the justice you deserve. Call us today at 302-656-5445 or complete an online form for a free consultation. Located in Wilmington and Georgetown, Delaware, we serve clients throughout Dover, New Castle County, and Sussex County.