hydrofluoric acid

Toxic acid puts millions at risk

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For 170,000 people living in and around Bellingham, it’s a distinctly chilling scenario: Something goes horribly wrong at the ConocoPhillips’ refinery near Ferndale and over the next 10 minutes 110,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid explodes into a cloud that goes on to burn the lungs of whole neighborhoods or towns, causing widespread shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain and possibly even death.

The ConocoPhillips refinery is the only refinery in Washington using a chemical known as hydrofluoric acid, described by federal health officials as a “highly corrosive . . . serious systemic poison.” The stuff is so toxic that it can harm people up to 14 miles downwind, government records show.  

“You mean the most deadly chemical ever invented?” asked environmental activist Denny Larson of Global Community Monitor. “I’ve worked on refinery issues for 25 years. This has been a major issue for at least that long because it is known as one of the most deadly chemicals ever invented.”

Confirms Mark MacIntyre, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle:  “It’s horrible stuff. It’s some of the worst stuff in the spill-response world.”

Intern reporter confronted by ConocoPhillips security in reporting hydrofluoric acid story

Internships at InvestigateWest are not the coffee-fetching, errand-running type. In fact, as an intern, I recently learned that you may even be confused with a threat to homeland security.

As an InvestigateWest intern living in Bellingham, I was the natural choice for the Seattle-based news agency to visit the ConocoPhillips refinery near Bellingham to gather descriptive color and take photos from outside the facility’s fence. The story was about the refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid, which has the potential to harm thousands of people if it leaks. IWest environment correspondent Robert McClure warned me that, because of a post-9/11 crackdown on anyone taking pictures near refineries, dams, bridges and other potential targets of terrorists, I might be questioned at the refinery. I understood this could be a possibility, but thought the workers there would most likely not acknowledge me. Turns out, Robert was right.

When I first arrived, I drove around to one of the far corners – making observations and jotting down notes along the way. After I had written down a thorough description, I stepped out of my truck and started taking photos of the refinery. Soon after my first pictures, a white Ford Escape quickly appeared. A security guard hopped out and said, “You aren’t allowed to take pictures here, it’s a federal offense.”

I told him I was on a public street and have a right to take pictures from where I was. He repeated himself and radioed the make, model and license plate number of my truck. A woman’s voice responded, “Is he still taking pictures?” I was. The guard said the refinery manager was coming out to speak to me and that they would call the sheriff and confiscate my pictures. Within a minute or two, two men arrived in a white Saturn. They asked me what I was doing and I explained.

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