Fueling Fears

Published — March 28, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

New oil refinery in South Dakota says it will use alternative to toxic acid


The company planning to build the nation’s first new major oil refinery in 35 years will use a safer technology as a substitute for a highly toxic acid that can travel great distances and threaten nearby communities.

Nationwide, 50 refineries use hydrofluoric acid, known as HF, and at least 16 million Americans live within the chemical’s potential path if it were released in an accident or a terrorist attack, a recent Center for Public Integrity-ABC News investigation found.

Hyperion Resources, the company planning the new refinery in South Dakota, told the Center it will use a relatively new technology called InAlk, which is made by Honeywell International Inc. subsidiary UOP. Paul Orum, a chemical safety consultant who works with public-interest groups, said the company’s decision is “a very significant development because it shows what is possible.”

Of the roughly 100 U.S. refineries that have facilities — known as alkylation units — to transform crude into high-octane gasoline, about half use HF, and the others rely on sulfuric acid, which is somewhat less hazardous but has other drawbacks. For years, activists and union leaders have pushed for refineries to switch to safer alternatives to HF. Under pressure, a few facilities have converted to a modified form of the acid that doesn’t travel as far but still presents risks.

InAlk uses a technology based on a solid catalyst, which drastically reduces the potential hazards linked to a liquid catalyst like HF, experts say.

“In short, it poses a much, much smaller risk to human health and the environment than do the more conventional technologies, which is a major reason for us selecting it,” Hyperion spokesman Eric Williams said in written answers to questions from the Center.

InAlk’s chemical process is somewhat different from that used in refinery units relying on HF or sulfuric acid, and it would be difficult for refineries using those more traditional processes simply to replace them with InAlk, said James Nehlsen, aprocess development manager at the chemical technology company Exelus Inc.

But at least two companies, including Exelus, have developed solid acid catalysts that could replace the traditional liquid acids, though no U.S. refinery has chosen to switch to them, Nehlsen said. The cost of a conversion to Exelus’ solid acid catalyst, Nehlsen said, would be about $50 million.

UOP also markets technology based on HF, and its parent company, Honeywell, produces and sells the acid. UOP did not respond to interview requests from the Center.

Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, has said switching to a solid catalyst at existing refineries is neither simple nor necessary. “We believe that there is a very useful purpose for hydrofluoric acid, that we have used it for 70 years-plus, [and] that we built redundant systems in to try to make sure that any mishap is contained,” he said in a recent interview.

Hyperion’s Williams said, “Certainly, other technologies can and do operate safely, but after an extremely thorough evaluation, we determined InAlk is the one that is suitable for our operation.”

HF is of particular concern because of its large potential impact, but there are other hazards at oil refineries — toxic substances that could be released and pollutants that could be emitted. Despite its decision to avoid the use of HF, Hyperion has not been immune to criticism from environmentalists.

Local environmental groups have objected to the proposed facility, which will include both the refinery and a plant to power it, and warned that air pollution would worsen. Williams called these claims “erroneous” and said the company was focused on minimizing its environmental impact.

The $10 billion refinery will cover about 2,000 acres in a farming area of southeast South Dakota, Williams said, and it is designed to handle about 400,000 barrels per day of dense crude from Canada’s oil sands. Environmental groups say the extraction and processing of this heavier crude causes greater environmental damage than other crude.

ABC News contributed to this story.

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