USW seeks phaseout of HF alkylation units

Paula Dittrick
OGJ Senior Staff Writer

HOUSTON, Aug. 31 -- The United Steelworkers Union has called for a nationwide phaseout of hydrogen fluoride alkylation units at refineries, saying solid-state catalysts offer promise as a safer alternative although this method is only used at the pilot plant stage.

Hydrogen fluoride is an acid used as a catalyst in alkylation units. The other main commercially used alternative for a catalyst is sulfuric acid. Both are hazardous chemicals. A third alternative is a modified HF process although only a handful of refineries are using it, industry spokespeople said.

“We intend to pursue every avenue till we have safer units that don’t endanger our refinery workers or the communities surrounding these facilities,” USB Vice-Pres. Gary Beevers said in an Aug. 31 news release.

The union said it is scheduling a mid-September meeting in Corpus Christi, Tex., between the local and international union representatives, the Sierra Club, and Citizens for Environmental Justice.

USW said sulfuric acid has less potential to form a deadly vapor plume in the case of an accidental release. The union noted three HF release incidents in 5 months.

HF releases
HF was released from the alkylation unit at Sunoco Inc.’s 330,000-b/d refinery in Philadelphia on Mar. 11, HF was released during a fire at Citgo Petroleum Corp.’s 156,800-b/d Corpus Christi, Tex., refinery on July 19, and the chemical also was released Aug. 6 from the alkylation unit at the ExxonMobil Corp. refinery in Joliet, Ill.

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has sent an investigative team to ExxonMobil’s 240,000-b/d Joliet refinery (OGJ, Aug. 17, 2009, Newsletter).

At that time, CSB Chairman John S. Bresland said, “We are concerned about the three apparent releases of hydrogen fluoride from refinery alkylation units in Pennsylvania, Texas, and now Illinois that have been reported since March 2009. Because of its high toxicity, any loss of primary containment for hydrogen fluoride is a serious matter,” he said.

CSB has investigators examining the HF releases at Citgo’s Corpus Christi plant.

NPRA, API responds
National Petrochemical & Refiners Association Pres. Charles T. Drevna said HF is as safe as any other catalyst, and is a critical component in refinery operations.

“It appears to us that USW may be a victim of bad analysis provided by environmental activists, who for years have unsuccessfully promoted the concept of chemical substitution,” Drevna said. “You can’t simply switch hydrofluoric acid for something else. Such a policy position could actually threaten the very jobs USW is seeking to protect.”

American Petroleum Institute spokesman Ron Chittim said he has seen estimates that it could cost a refinery $50-125 million to switch from an HF unit to a modified HF unit.

Chittim said the HF process is so different from the sulfuric acid process that a refinery wanting to switch to sulfuric acid would have to scrap its existing HF unit and build a sulfuric acid unit.

“You are talking about different types of equipment,” Chittim said. “They both have a role in refining. I don’t think it’s right to pick winners and losers. Both methods have their pros and cons.”

USW withdrew from API talks
Drevna said, “It’s no coincidence that USW is trying to seize an issue to make hay of in the wake of walking away from safety discussions, and this is nothing more than a manufactured opportunity to lobby through the press.”

He referred to the USW withdrawing from talks on refinery standards with the API and the oil industry.

The talks were in response to recommendations from the CSB following the deadly Mar. 23, 2005, explosion at BP America Inc.’s Texas City, Tex., refinery (OGJ, Sept. 8, 2008, p. 20).

USW and API were working to develop two American National Standards Institute standards for process safety performance indicators and fatigue. The two groups had worked together for more than a year on the upcoming standards, which API spokesmen say will be completed without USW participation.

Contact Paula Dittrick at paulad@ogjonline.com.

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