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US Chemical Safety Board releases new safety video: “Wake Up Call: Refinery Disaster in Philadelphia”

01 November 2022

The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has released a new safety video about the fire, explosions, and toxic hydrofluoric acid (HF) release that occurred at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in June 2019. The incident caused the release of over 2.2 tonnes of highly toxic HF, launched a 17 tonne vessel fragment off-site, and resulted in an estimated property damage loss of $750 million.

The safety video includes an animation of the sequence of events leading to the incident, and comments from the CSB’s Interim Executive Authority Steve Owens and Lead Investigator Lauren Grim.

At PES, a pipe elbow catastrophically failed due to hydrofluoric acid corrosion, which is a well-known safety hazard. Flammable process fluid escaped through the ruptured pipe elbow. Upon release, the process fluid formed a large ground-hugging vapor cloud about ten feet high that engulfed a portion of the refinery’s HF alkylation unit. The cloud ignited, causing the fire and series of explosions.

Because of the fire, a critical safeguard intended to protect the local community from a release of HF did not function as designed. HF is a highly toxic chemical that is particularly hazardous if a release occurs because it vaporizes, becoming airborne. Breathing HF can cause lung damage and skin contact with HF can cause severe burns and death. If a large amount of hydrofluoric acid had escaped from the refinery, the consequences for the surrounding community could have been disastrous.

In the video, Interim Executive Authority Owens says: “Thankfully, despite the urban location of the PES Refinery, the local community was not seriously harmed. But it could have been worse. This incident should be a wake-up call to industry and regulators to take every step possible to prevent a similar event from occurring.”

In its report, the CSB made recommendations to the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The recommendations are aimed strengthening industry standards and regulations regarding several key safety issues found at PES including a lack of remotely operated emergency isolation valves, the need to ensure safeguard reliability in HF alkylation units, and the consideration of inherently safer design.

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