Deadly Chemical and Dismal Safety Records Put Millions Living Near Refineries at Risk

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Officials at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, however, have warned that while the refinery industry has been painting a rosy picture of the conditions at their facilities, it has compiled a disconcerting track record. As the nation's 150 refineries have aged, there have been an increasing number of fatal, or near-fatal, incidents. In the last two years alone, there have been 29 fires and explosions at refineries that use the deadly chemical, including at least three potentially dangerous releases of hydrofluoric acid. And 32 refineries that use hydrofluoric acid have amassed more than 1,000 willful, serious or repeat safety violations in the last five years.

CLICK HERE to watch a giant hydrofluoric acid cloud form.

In 2009, an accident at the Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia caused a hydrofluoric acid release. James Jamison, an ironworker who was working on the acid unit at the time, described to ABC News how he became engulfed in a cloud of the noxious chemical. "It seemed like a rain cloud, and the smell was so intense I could feel it through my eyes, my nose, it was like a heat wave came over me."

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Sunoco disputes Jamison's claim that he suffered permanent lung and heart damage in the accident, and the two parties are now in court. Federal investigators found that the company had failed to address leaks in the acid storage unit that had been a recurring problem for decades. In a statement to ABC News, Sunoco said it has since invested $200 million in improving the safety and reliability of the equipment involved in the use and storage of hydrofluoric acid, "state-of-the-art technology" that it says will help avoid another accident.

Corpus Christi Citgo Oil Refinery Explosion

In most places where refineries are running, the surrounding communities are unaware of the risks associated with hydrofluoric acid. But in Corpus Christi, Texas, the fears are as palpable as the warning sirens that come at all times of the day and night.

Citgo says it tests alarms daily, and encourages employees to sound the alarm if they think something has gone awry. "While this approach can result in false alarms, CITGO would rather sound the alarm and not need it, than not sound it if we need to," the company said in a statement.

Few have forgotten what happened the last time, less than two years ago, when something significant did go awry. An explosion at the Citgo refinery released a cloud of hydrofluoric acid that just missed the neighborhood. Citgo said in a statement that the fire and gas leak were contained, and never reached the surrounding community. But a subsequent investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found that water systems meant to contain a leak didn't entirely succeed.

Residents of Corpus Christi have tried to learn to live with the risk – some packing bags of clothes by their beds so they can make a quick escape if the plant erupts.

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Janie Mumphord, who lives just a few blocks from the refinery, said she fears the worst. "You never know when you go to bed if you're gonna live through the night, or if you have to run through the night," she said.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, investigative reporting outlet in Washington, D.C.

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