Occupational Health & Safety

CSB Citgo Screenshot

CSB Releases Surveillance Video of CITGO Conflagration

Despite objections from CITGO Petroleum Corp., the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has released video footage of the July 19, 2009, explosion and fire at CITGO's refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. In addition, CSB on Wednesday issued urgent safety recommendations calling on CITGO to immediately improve its emergency water mitigation system in the event of another release of potentially deadly hydrogen fluoride (HF) vapor, as occurred in the July incident. CSB also called on the company to perform third-party audits to ensure the safety of its HF unit at the Corpus Christi site, as well as at CITGO's other HF unit in Lemont, Ill.

CSB issues urgent recommendations before completion of final investigation reports in cases where board members determine an imminent hazard may be present and has the potential to cause serious harm unless rectified in a short timeframe. The board said it does not expect to complete its final report on the Corpus Christi incident until August 2010.

On the day of the incident last July, as caught on tape from two different interior surveillance cameras, hydrocarbons and hydrogen fluoride were suddenly released from the refinery’s HF alkylation unit, used in the production of high-octane gasoline. The hydrocarbons ignited, leading to a fire that burned for several days. The fire critically injured one employee and another was treated for possible HF exposure. HF is a corrosive, highly toxic chemical. Contact with HF liquid or vapor can severely burn the skin and eyes.

CSB investigators determined that a blockage of liquid caused by the sudden failure of a control valve led to violent shaking within the process recycle piping. The shaking broke threaded pipe connections, resulting in the release of hydrocarbons. The cloud of hydrocarbons reached an adjacent unit and ignited; the ensuing conflagration caused multiple additional fires and the release of approximately 42,000 pounds of HF from equipment and piping within the unit, investigators said.

Following the incident, CITGO reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that all but 30 pounds of the potentially deadly HF were captured by the refinery's water mitigation system. CSB Chairman John Bresland said the actual HF release "was at least 100 times larger than" that.

The refinery used a water spray system to absorb the released HF, but the CSB cited scientific literature to conclude that at least 4,000 pounds of the chemical likely escaped from the unit into the atmosphere and left the facility. Investigators determined that during the first day of response efforts CITGO nearly exhausted the stored water supply for the water mitigation system. Approximately 11-and-a-half hours after the initial release, before the water supply was completely exhausted, the refinery began pumping salt water from the ship channel into the refinery fire water supply. Multiple failures occurred during the salt water transfer including ruptures of the barge-to-shore transfer hoses and water pump engine failures, CSB said.

"It is imperative that refineries have the proper emergency response resources available to control a release of hazardous materials and protect against impact on the surrounding community," Bresland said.

CSB's urgent recommendations call on CITGO to develop and initiate plans within 30 days to ensure an adequate water supply to the refinery's HF mitigation system. The company should also report planned or completed actions to the Refinery Terminal Fire Company and the Local Emergency Planning Committee every 30 days until all planned activities are fully implemented, the board said.

CSB Investigations Supervisor Robert Hall, P.E., said, "Our investigation closely examined emergency response actions related to this accident. Investigators found that the CITGO water mitigation system serves as the last line of defense to protect the community from an HF release. The CSB’s urgent recommendation aims to improve the reliability of CITGO’s Corpus Christi, Texas, HF water mitigation system."

The board's second urgent recommendation calls on CITGO to commission independent, third-party audits of the safety of its two HF alkylation units at refineries in Corpus Christi and Lemont, comparing safety practices at the units to those recommended by the American Petroleum Institute. Investigators said CITGO had never conducted such an audit of the units, despite an existing industry recommendation for audits every three years.

Finally, CSB said it released video footage of the fire in CITGO's Corpus Christi plant last July because it was in the public's best interest to do so. "Accidents can be prevented if we find out what happened and share the findings with the industry and the public," Bresland said.

The footage, captured by two CITGO surveillance cameras, shows the actual release and spread of the flammable HF vapor cloud and the moment when the vapor was ignited. Bresland said CITGO objected to the release of the video, contending its release would "not only sensationalize this unfortunate accident but also raise substantial issues of national security."

Bresland said that before releasing the video CSB asked the Department of Homeland Security's Sensitive Security Information Office to review the footage the cameras caught from both angles in order to determine if any of it contained information that could even arguably be protected from public disclosure.

"Following a thorough, three-tiered review, DHS determined that there was not any sensitive security information contained in the two videos," Bresland said. "Classification under national security rules, I believe, is an attempt on behalf of CITGO to limit public disclosure of the details regarding this accident for purposes unrelated to security."

Bresland said CITGO's objection and secrecy claims were similar to those made earlier this year by hazardous chemical facility operator Bayer CropScience in Institute, W.Va. "Eventually, [Bayer] company officials admitted to Congress that they had sought to use the classification in order to avoid an open public debate on the plant safety issues," Bresland said. "I admonish all companies that experience significant chemical releases not to attempt to use unwarranted security labels to try to interfere with the public's right to know."

Hall said that as the CSB team proceeded with its investigation it focused particular attention on the emergency response efforts related to the incident and that as the investigation continues the team is thoroughly reviewing CITGO's safety practices, including its HF-mitigating practices. He added that the CITGO case is one of several HF-related investigations currently underway.

"While we were doing our initial fieldwork down at CITGO, there was another HF release that occurred at ExxonMobil in Joliet, Ill., so we deployed from Corpus Christi to Joliet," Hall said. "And in that regard, we also opened an investigation to the release that occurred at Sunoco in March. So we're looking industrywide at the HF use in refineries and the safety of HF in the 51 U.S. refineries that use HF."

When asked if the number of refinery incidents in 2009 seemed to him particularly high, Bresland replied, "The CSB is, in the scheme of things in the federal government, a relatively small organization. We've got 40 employees, 15 of whom are investigators. . . . I believe we have about 16 investigations that are currently underway, and about half of those involve refineries, including in some cases multiple accidents at the same refinery. So, from our perspective, that is too many. That is a lot of accidents in a refinery industry that has 150 refineries total in the United States."

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