Extra! Citgo Toxic Gas Release Worse Than Thought

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Hot off the presses! Check out my story on Corpus Christi refinery failures, accidents, and poisonous gas releases in the just-released issue. At the center of the piece is a fire and toxic release at Citgo East refinery on July 19th.

During the fire, a quantity of hydrofluoric acid, one of the most dangerous chemicals used in the refinery process, was released. People in the adjacent fence-line communities have complained of health effects they link to the hydrofluoric acid but Citgo and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have argued (unconvincingly, IMO) that the community wasn’t exposed.

Citgo fire

I discuss this issue at length in my story, highlighting some of the holes in the authorities’ monitoring and emergency response systsems as well as Citgo’s less-than-stellar safety and environmental record.

But there’s one thing that surfaced earler this week that I wasn’t able to include.

Shortly after the fire Citgo reported to TCEQ that an estimated 101 pounds of hydrogen fluoride had been released — not an insignificant amount but not massive either. But late last week, Citgo submitted new estimates to TCEQ. This time the company reported that almost 4,000 pounds of HF had escaped into the Corpus air.

Neil Carman, of the Sierra Club, called these revised numbers a “massive airborne release” that “reveals why Citgo needs to stop using HF as the most dangerous chemical in its East refinery.”

Last year, a judge in England slapped Shell with a £500,000 ($300,000) fine for an HF release of just 330 pounds at the company’s Staniow refinery. Like the Citgo fire, the UK Shell release occurred in an alkylation unit and could have been catastrophic.

According to regulators, the Shell incident was caused by corroded pipes that refinery officials had failed to maintain despite warnings. Sources say that a similar dynamic may have been involved at Citgo-East though there is no definitive evidence and investigations are underway.

Safety advocates have been demanding that refineries move away from the use of HF for years. Catastrophic HF releases have occurred. Perhaps the worst was a 1987 accident at Marathon Oil’s Texas City refinery, where yet another pipe rupture led to the escape of 30,000 pounds of HF into the surrounding area. More than a thousand people ended up in the hospital and several thousand more had to be force-evacuated from the area.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.