Mayor Proposes Legislation to Ban Use of Hydrogen Fluoride at Refineries in Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA – Mayor Kenney today announced his intention to transmit legislation to City Council this week to prohibit the future use of hydrogen fluoride (HF) at refineries within the City of Philadelphia.
The legislation, which will be introduced on Thursday by Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District) on behalf of the Kenney Administration, will amend the Philadelphia Fire Code to ban the use of hydrogen fluoride in refinery alkylation units and other petroleum or hydrocarbon processing applications. Upon passage, any refinery or petroleum processing operations within the City of Philadelphia would be required to use alternative technologies that pose less of a risk to public health.
“Further regulating HF was a key recommendation to emerge through the Refinery Advisory Group process, and I applaud Councilmember Johnson’s leadership on this important matter of public health and safety,” said Mayor Kenney. “With the passage of this legislation, large quantities of HF will never return to the Philadelphia refinery site again. I urge other communities, as well as the federal government, to follow Philadelphia’s lead and phase out the use of HF in the refining industry entirely – for the safety of the workers as well as nearby communities.”
Hydrogen fluoride (HF) is a chemical compound used in many industrial applications, including as a catalyst in the alkylation process at oil refineries. Approximately 40 refineries nationwide use HF, and it was used at the Girard Point complex formerly operated by Philadelphia Energy Solutions. HF was present in large quantities at the portion of the PES refinery that was heavily damaged by a fire and series of explosions on June 21, 2019. The neighboring refinery complex at Point Breeze, which was undamaged by last year’s fire and explosions, uses an alternative alkylation technology that does not involve HF.
“The explosions that rocked the refinery complex on June 21st drew renewed attention to the unacceptable danger HF poses to our communities – especially when it is used in large quantities in close proximity to explosive materials,” said Councilmember Johnson, who represents the district where the refinery complex is located. “With this legislation, we will ensure that this specific risk is minimized in the future. Regardless of the outcome of the bankruptcy proceeding, we must do all we can to keep large quantities of HF out of our communities – now, and in the future.”
Hydrogen fluoride is highly toxic, and when released it has the tendency to form a vapor cloud near ground level that can travel great distances and pose an imminent danger to human life and health at concentrations as low as 30 parts per million – with fatalities occurring from skin exposure to as little as 2.5% of body surface area.
In recent years, numerous organizations including the United Steelworkers and U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board have advocated for tighter restrictions on the use of HF in refinery operations and the wider adoption of safer alkylation technologies. Between February 2015 and June 2019, three U.S. refineries at Superior, WI, Torrance, CA, and Philadelphia, PA experienced catastrophic incidents that threatened significant releases of HF.
The explosion that rocked the Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ (PES) Girard Point refinery in June 2019 occurred at an alkylation unit that used HF. Thanks to the quick actions of the well-trained workforce at PES, the vast majority of HF at PES was safely contained and a disaster was narrowly averted, with no reported health impacts from any exposure to HF – either on-site or in the surrounding community.
Further regulating HF was a key recommendation contained in the City’s report “A Close Call and an Uncertain Future.” Additional information about HF is contained in the report, which is available at www.phila.gov/refinery.