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Fuel factories: Communities at risk

Toxic chemical still used in two Wyoming refineries

September 10, 2012
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Wyoming Refining Co.'s oil refinery  
Wyoming Refining Co.'s oil refinery is on Main Street in Newcastle, a half-mile away from Newcastle High School. (Anne Murphy photo)

From WyoFile:

Wyoming Refining Co.’s oil refinery is situated literally on Main Street in Newcastle and a mere half-mile away from Newcastle High School. The school is equipped with a “panic button” that shuts off all ventilation in the building in the event of a toxic spill.

Given its close proximity, refinery officials are required to share with school board officials their Risk Management Plan detailing the potential human toll should there be a major leak of hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic and potentially deadly chemical.

The plan includes several scenarios and maps with circles drawn around the refinery, representing miles-wide areas where a hydrofluoric acid vapor cloud could injure or kill as it moves.

“People call them ‘circles of death,’” said Bob Neufeld, vice president of environment and government relations. “If local people want to know about the Risk Management Plan, we will talk to them about it. But we don’t hand out copies to people in the press.”

Because oil refineries are regarded as potential terrorist targets, refiners closely guard their risk management plans. But few Americans realize they may live in one of these “circles of death.”

At least 60,000 Wyomingites live in the potential fallout zones of hydrofluoric acid, or HF. The chemical is still in use at 50 U.S. oil refineries despite the availability of a safer alternative, according to a joint investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News.

The fallout zones in Wyoming are in Newcastle, an old coal-mining town in the northeast corner of the state, and in Cheyenne, the state capitol in the far southeast corner. Like Newcastle, Cheyenne hosts an old refinery with residential neighborhoods nearby.

Frontier Refining, Inc., in Cheyenne, like Wyoming Refining Co. in Newcastle, continues to use HF, a catalyst in the production of high-octane gasoline.

Although there’s been no catastrophic HF incident in the U.S., the potential threat of a terrorist attack or accident places some 16 million Americans at risk. Adding to the concern is a series of industry mishaps in recent years.

In Wyoming, a disproportionate number of refinery spills, fires, accidents and regulatory violations suggest weaknesses in both the operation and oversight of refineries that handle HF in close proximity to schools, daycares, homes, businesses and busy roadways.

“They both (the Cheyenne and Newcastle refineries) have abominable records in terms of public safety, so they should be doing something to protect the people of Wyoming,” said Vickie Goodwin, a former organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, which has advocated for more stringent pollution controls.

According to the investigation, the maximum potential release of HF from the Frontier refinery is 109,000 pounds with a potential radius of exposure of 14 miles. That worst-case scenario would put at risk some 60,000 people in the Cheyenne area.

The maximum potential release of HF from the Newcastle refinery is 20,000 pounds with a potential radius of exposure of 3.42 miles, according to the report. The worst-case scenario would put at risk 3,067 people in the Newcastle area.

There are a total of five oil refineries in Wyoming. Sinclair Oil Corp. uses a sulfuric acid alkylation unit instead of an HF unit at its Sinclair refinery near Rawlins. Sinclair’s Little America refinery in Casper doesn’t use HF or sulfuric acid because it doesn’t have an alkylation unit. Northcut Refining LLC’s “topping” plant north of Douglas does not use HF.

Newcastle refinery track record

Although there’s no record of a major HF accident in Wyoming, the operation and regulation of oil refining in the state has been called into question in recent years.

In the past five years, Denver-based Wyoming Refining Co.’s Newcastle refinery — a subsidiary of Hermes Consolidated, Inc. — has received nine “notices of violation” from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, resulting in $427,400 in civil penalties. None of the violations appear to involve the handling of HF.

The violations include spilling various contaminants into waterways, exceeding sulfide effluent and ammonia limits and failure to meet reporting requirements.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also taken action against the refinery. In 2010, Wyoming Refining Co. paid a $157,500 penalty to EPA for “failure to prepare, submit, and implement an adequate and complete Facility Response Plan.”

In 2009, the company paid a civil penalty of $150,000 and agreed to $14 million in upgrades to settle several alleged emission violations cited by EPA.

In 2008, Wyoming Refining Co. paid an undisclosed amount in a settlement with 47 Newcastle area residents regarding emissions and a March 2002 spill that rained 20 tons of silica catalyst over a portion of the town. Several residents complained of skin, eye and throat irritation, suspecting exposure to vanadium pentoxide.

That spill was followed by another the next month. Further adding to anger and mistrust among Newcastle residents was the fact that no warnings had been issued in either event, and state health officials had no answers about potential health effects.

In 2004, EPA requested the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to look into the potential health impacts of the silica catalyst spill. The report was finally issued in January, and concluded that exposure to vanadium pentoxide over the hours-long spill “is not expected to harm people’s health.

“However, ATSDR finds that respiratory effects (e.g., coughing, wheezing) are plausible for residents who were downwind and outside during the 10:35 pm to 11:00 pm time-frame.”

The report also notes that no air samples were collected during the catalyst spill, so its analysis relied on modeling.

Ellis Hemler, 82, lives in Newcastle 2.5 blocks away from the refinery and is a member of a local advocacy group that has pressured the refinery to clean up its act. The group claims that various heavy metals and other pollutants from the refinery have caused or worsened numerous health problems among people who live and work nearby.

“Anytime the wind blows, you just about choke,” said Hemler. “They say if we get rid of the refinery this town would die. Well, we’re dying now. We’ve got hundreds of houses here that are empty.”

Hemler is twice widowed, and he blames pollution from the refinery for the deaths of both wives. Hemler said he began suffering from asthma in 2002, a condition he suspects is a direct result of the March 2002 silica catalyst spill.

Carol Wolfe of Newcastle is also an outspoken critic of the refinery. Wolfe said Newcastle is somewhat divided between those who suspect the refinery of causing multiple health problems in the community and those who want to protect the refinery for the 90 workers it employs and its broader economic contribution.

“They’re afraid of losing their jobs. They’re afraid we want to close it, but that’s not the case. We want to clean it up so it’s safe to live here. Most of us can’t afford to move,” said Wolfe.

Neufeld, the refinery’s government relations officer, points to multiple upgrades in recent years, including a $10 million unit to remove ammonia from wastewater discharges. He estimates the company has spent up to $30 million in recent years to improve safety at the refinery, including the relocation of critical control desks that had been located close to high-risk areas of the refinery.

Neufeld said there have been only minor spills of HF and worker exposure to HF at the refinery. None of the incidents resulted in a worker missing a day of work, according to Neufeld. He said the only HF spill that traveled off site happened in the 1940s when it is believed an HF cloud reached a nearby golf course.

“Our track record is not perfect,” said Neufeld. “But we feel we’ve learned significantly from those imperfections. … I think our safety record is good, and we are striving very hard to make it excellent.”

Cheyenne's Frontier Refinery track record

Frontier Refining, Inc., in Cheyenne, is located in Wyoming's most populous city, between Laramie County Community College and the capitol. (CJ Baker photo — click to enlarge)

In the past five years, Frontier Refining Inc. has received 15 notices of violation from DEQ, resulting in more than $1.4 million in penalties. One notice of violation was rescinded. Alleged violations include failure to adequately maintain refinery waste and several unauthorized discharges to Crow Creek, which runs through the city. An explosion and fire in July 2010 sent a thick plume of smoke over Cheyenne and continued to burn for several days.

In May 2010, the company paid a $900,000 penalty to EPA for dumping hazardous waste into a stormwater pond over several years, in violation of the Resource Conservation Recovery Act, according to EPA. The agency had originally sought a penalty of nearly $7 million.

In February 2009, Frontier Refining and Frontier El Dorado Refining paid a $1.23 million penalty to EPA for numerous violations at the Cheyenne refinery and a refinery in El Dorado, Kan. The companies also agreed to spend $127 million in pollution control upgrades at the refineries.

In January 2009, Frontier paid a $650,000 penalty to Wyoming DEQ and agreed to “donate” $200,000 to the city of Cheyenne to help pay for a stormwater improvement project related to Crow Creek. Continual leaks and various emissions from the refinery have reportedly forced the Lummis Ranch to keep cattle off of about 100 acres near the refinery in recent years. Among the Lummis Ranch owners is U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo. Her office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Frontier Oil Corp. (NYSE:FTO) stock closed at $26.97 Tuesday, the same day that Frontier Oil and Holly Corp. (NYSE:HOC) announced a “merger of equals” creating a new company worth $7 billion. The new company will be called HollyFrontier Corp., and will be headquartered in Dallas, Texas, Holly’s current headquarters.

In a joint statement this week, Holly’s chairman and CEO Matt Clifton and Frontier’s chairman and CEO Mike Jennings said, “Frontier and Holly are two of the most profitable, publicly traded independent refining companies; together we will be one of the largest independent refiners in the U.S.”

The companies expect an annual cost savings of $30 million through reduced general and administrative expenses, and increased operational efficiencies.

Wyoming refineries sticking with HF

Wyoming Refining Co. and Frontier Refining, Inc., argue that switching from HF to a sulfuric acid alkylation process is not only expensive (an estimated $50 million to $150 million), but could commit both refineries to a process just as risky.

In the past five years, Frontier Refining Inc. has received 15 notices of violation from DEQ, resulting in more than $1.4 million in penalties. One notice of violation was rescinded. (CJ Baker photo — click to enlarge)

Kevin Burke, vice president and refinery manager of Frontier Refining & Marketing, Inc., said the refinery uses about 5,500 gallons of HF every two months. That requires one tanker truck delivery about once every two months. Switching away from HF to a sulfuric acid alkylation unit would drastically increase volumes and tanker truck traffic in Cheyenne.

“The catch with sulfuric acid is the quantity of acid required,” said Burke. “It would be one to two trucks per day that I’d be bringing into the refinery, so I’ve got one or two trucks of sulfuric acid on the road.”

Neufeld, from the Newcastle refinery, said regional logistics also play a role. He said switching to a sulfuric acid alkylation process would require a large sulfuric acid recycling facility, and there are none close to Wyoming.

Proponents of discontinuing the use of HF claim there is a less costly alternative — an HF additive that reduces the vaporization of HF when it is spilled, reducing the potential reach of an HF cloud, but not its toxicity.

“We don’t know if it works,” responded Neufeld, adding that the small, 14,000 barrels-per-day capacity refinery in Newcastle likely will not be the first to test the HF additive.

“With our size, we’re not the first to jump in with new technology,” Neufeld said. “If and when that is proven to be a reliable and effective means of dealing with it, I think we’d want to be looking at it.”

Burke said switching to a sulfuric acid alkylation unit is not a viable option at the Frontier refinery, either, because it would require more than just an expensive retrofit.

“Nobody that I know of has done any retrofits,” said Burke. “And it’s not a retrofit. It’s a new unit.”

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates multiple activities at oil refineries, seems to agree that the economics of switching away from HF at the refineries is unnecessary.

DEQ issued a statement to WyoFile: “As there has been progress made to use alternatives to HF, it may be difficult/cost prohibitive for these smaller refineries to make a change.”

Burke said another consideration is the fact that a sulfuric acid system would operate under high pressure, whereas a less risky pump is used to move HF through the HF alkylation unit.

“Can you handle it? Yeah, you can. It’s low temperature and it’s low pressure. Those are key right there,” said Burke.

Stippled clouds and the sun hanging at a low angle cast a colorful glow across the sky over the Frontier Refinery in Cheyenne. (Coulter Sunderman photo — click to enlarge)

Prevention and response

The risks of HF are well understood among emergency responders, both in Newcastle and Cheyenne. When asked about the use of HF, emergency management officials in Weston and Laramie counties told WyoFile that it is among their top concerns.

“We have a school that’s within close proximity, so that’s the area I’m most worried about,” said Doug Jorrey, coordinator for Weston County Homeland Security.

The refineries are required to coordinate an emergency response plan with local police, fire and hospital officials. Jorrey said refinery personnel lead the spill response at the refinery, while county and city responders lead efforts outside the refinery.

“Our response is to notify, shelter-in-place, and close all windows,” said Jorrey. “We have practiced drills where we move (students) onto a bus and move them elsewhere.”

Rob Cleveland, director of the Cheyenne/Laramie County Emergency Management Agency, said when he was a paramedic many years ago he responded to an incident in which a worker came in contact with HF at the Frontier refinery.

“I don’t remember the details,” Cleveland said. “Our emergency response teams are very aware of the product. The refinery has employees who are highly trained in the use (of HF) and how to apply the antidotes and medication to counteract it.”

Shauna Smith is risk management coordinator for Laramie County School District 1 in Cheyenne, which includes several schools in the potential path of an HF cloud. Smith said the district and the refinery have instituted a color-coded emergency notification system detailing different types of emergencies and responses. However, Smith said, the specific threat of HF isn’t high on the school’s radar.

“I honestly don’t know a lot about the refinery,” said Smith. “We do have a plan to shelter-in-place, take employees and students to the gym where they have plastic and duct tape to seal up doors until they are evacuated.”

While HF and other chemicals used at the refinery in Newcastle present significant risks, Jorrey said he at least knows what the chemicals are and where they are located. What concerns him more are the chemicals and materials that move through Newcastle on trains, because the railroad doesn’t notify local officials of specific hazardous chemical shipments.

“That, to me, is something I’d like to know more about,” said Jorrey. “Nobody ever calls me up and says ‘We’ve got a train full of this chemical coming through town.’”

Burke said the Frontier refinery takes precautions specific to the prevention, detection and mitigation of a potential HF leak.

“What it would do on a hot day in Wyoming depends on how big a leak I have. Let’s say I didn’t take any mitigation at all; it could travel quite a ways,” said Burke. “On a hot day, with HF, it will make an ugly cloud, and it doesn’t take much to make a big, ugly cloud.”

HF is water soluble, so the first and only line of defense for an HF leak at both refineries are water cannons situated near the HF alkylation units — an industry-wide standard. The water cannons can flow up to 5,000 gallons per minute.

In the event of a serious HF leak, the alkylation units are shut down and remaining HF in the system is drained into a storage drum, and refinery personnel go into a lock-down mode.

Because of the high level of risk, the HF alkylation unit is inspected more frequently than other areas of the refineries, according to Wyoming Refining and Frontier Refining officials. The alkylation units are also equipped with “path detectors,” which essentially use a laser beam that can detect HF at 10 parts per million (imagine a box containing 1 million marbles and 10 marbles leak out).

In addition, potential leak points (flanges and other connections) are coated with a special yellow paint that turns blood red if it comes into contact with HF. Burke said the sensitivity of the paint is less than 10 parts per million.

In Newcastle, Wyoming Refining Co. helped pay for a reverse-911 system so residents and businesses can receive notifications and specific instructions in the event of an emergency at the refinery.

But given the past performance of the refineries, many of their neighbors remain skeptical about whether they can prevent a catastrophic spill.

“We’ve got a bad situation here, really, with all of this carcinogenic pollution coming out of this facility,” said Hemler of Newcastle. “Everywhere we go (for help) we run into a brick wall.”

This story was originally published in February of 2011. WyoFile is a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.

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