10 Most Toxic Ingredients Used In Coal, Oil and Gas Production


By Don Lieber

There are many reasons to reject fossil fuels now, after 200 years of their reign as society’s primary energy source.

History will articulate both the benefits provided to human society derived from fossil fuel energy technologies from 1750 to the present—and the extensive costs.

In addition to transportation, electricity, industrial power, military and medical applications; fossil fuel technologies are also a core element behind war, political unrest, human rights abuses, extreme and permanent environmental degradation and human disease.

The production of major fossil fuels each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals—often not disclosed—many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Perhaps the most important historical legacy of fossil fuels, however, will be their collective role as the chief protagonist behind what may be the most urgent long-term global crisis in human history: greenhouse gas–induced climate change.

It is my hope that this list, focusing on immediate public health risks (apart from climate change), serves as an adjunct to the myriad other reasons to end the use of fossil fuels—all of them—completely.

The ten “ingredients” listed in this article are not intended as an exclusive list. The major fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals—often not disclosed—many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Attempting a comprehensive list of all the harmful chemicals used willingly by the oil, coal and gas industries would be far beyond the scope of this blog series.

This article, rather, represents some of the more commonly cited toxic ingredients in the public literature; a starting point in reviewing the overall public health dangers inherent across the spectrum in all three major fossil fuel extraction industries: oil, coal and natural gas.

1. Benzene

Fossil Fuel Use: Oil, Coal and Natural Gas

Benzene is a well-established carcinogen with specific links to leukemia as well as breast and urinary tract cancers. Exposure to benzene reduces red and white blood cell production in bone marrow; decreases auto-immune cell function (T-cell and B-cells); and has been linked to sperm-head abnormalities and generalized chromosome aberrations.

Benzene is one of the largest-volume petrochemical solvents used in the fossil fuel industry. It is a major component in all major fossil fuel production: oil, coal and gas.

People are exposed to it from inhaling automobile exhaust and gasoline fumes, industrial burning such as oil and coal combustion, and exposure to fracking fluids.

Studies linking Benzene from fossil fuel combustion to cancer and other severe health problems are increasingly reported from around the world. In Atlanta, scientists from Emory University earlier this year reported a “significant increase” in non-hodgkins lymphomas in regions close to oil refineries and plants that release benzene. In Canada, scientists reported unusually high rates of leukemia and non-hodgkins Lymphoma among residents living “downwind” from the tar sands fields in Alberta—corresponding with high benzene levels found in the same locations. In Calcutta (India) researchers recently linked sudden “spikes” in certain cancers to a corresponding rise in Benzene emissions since 2007.

The Colorado School of Public Health last year published a report which warned that the benzene from fracking operations gives local residents higher long-term cancer risks. “Benzene is the major contributor to lifetime excess cancer risks” for people living near fracking wells, said Lisa McKenzie, Ph.D., MPH, lead author of the study.

The damage benzene inflicts on the human body, however, often takes many years to develop—but those effects are catastrophic. As the fossil fuel industry blankets the U.S. and Canada with recently invented, highly profitable extraction methods such as fracking gas and tar sands oil production, long-term consequences have not been well considered. The story of Camp Lejune is worthy of study:

Over a period of thirty years from the 1950s to the 1980s, troops stationed at the U.S. military base at Camp Lejune, NC, unknowingly drank and bathed in highly contaminated water containing benzene (and a host of other toxic chemicals, originating from leaked fuel tanks and other commercial sources both on and off the base).

Starting in the 1970s, unusual forms of cancers associated with long-term exposure to benzene became rampant among the camp’s residents. Mary Freshwater was a military wife who lived on the base for many years.

“I was very active with the Officers’ Wives Club. We were at a party at one of my friend’s house one night. There were five of us in different stages of pregnancy. Every one of us lost their baby to a birth defect,” she told ABC news in this 2012 report, part of which I’ll repost here:

On Nov. 30, 1977, Freshwater gave birth to a son, Russell Alexander Thorpe, but the baby was born with an open spine. He died one month later. At the time, few people were aware of the chemicals in the drinking water, nor the long-term health effects of those chemicals. Doctors suggested to Freshwater that she try to get pregnant again—and she did. Her second son, Charlie, was born without a cranium, and died the same day. Today, Freshwater is 68 years old and has been diagnosed with two different kinds of cancers, acute myeloid and acute lymphoma. She says doctors told her the diagnosis was consistent with exposure to chemicals such as benzene, which she was exposed to during her time at Camp Lejeune.

The full story of the contaminated water at Camp Lejune is told in the documentary, Semper Fi: Always Faithful.

The use of benzene, like other toxins used in oil and gas, is particularly insidious because the effects—as seen in the children of the military families at Camp Lejune—take many years to manifest. And due to lax regulations, these products have been rushed into use long before any long-term testing has been possible.

“It takes about 20 years, let’s say, for solid tumors to develop after exposure to a chemical,” said Brian Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.

The fossil fuel industry actively suppresses benzene disclosure and regulation. In April 2001, the Koch Petroluem Group (now Flint Hills Resources—still owned by the Koch brothers) “pleaded guilty to a felony charge of lying to the government about its benzene emissions.”

The Koch brothers reported 1/149th of their actual benzene pollution to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The company was fined $10 million and ordered to fund an additional $10 million in costs for environmental cleanup in South Texas.

2. & 3. Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)

Fossil Fuel Sources: Oil, Coal and Gas

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are two primary examples of particle-forming air pollutants (particulate matter) from coal power plants. Particulate matter is known to contribute to serious health problems, including lung cancer and other cardiopulmonary mortality. SO2 and NOx are both highly toxic to human health, and contribute directly to thousands of hospitalizations, heart attacks and deaths annually.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health, for example, labels sulfur dioxide “extremely toxic.” At high concentrations, it can cause life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema); and it is linked to to respiratory ailments including chronic lung disease and asthma, as well as heart disease. It can be fatal upon inhalation at high exposure rates.

SO2 is particularly dangerous for children. Studies correlate SO2 emissions from petroleum refineries—even in lower exposure levels over time —to higher rates of childhood asthma in children who live or attend school in proximity to those refineries. Similarly, small particles of NOx can penetrate deeply into sensitive lung tissue and damage it, causing premature death in extreme cases. Inhalation of such particles is associated with emphysema and bronchitis.

The largest sources of combined global SO2 and NOx emissions are from fossil fuel combustion at power plants and other industrial facilities.

The American Journal of Public Health published reports in 2009 that high levels of sulfur dioxide, associated with oil refining, was found indoors in residential homes in Richmond, CA—a community which straddles four major oil refineries, including the massive Chevron oil refinery. The refinery processes up to 240,000 barrels of crude oil per day. In 2010 alone, it released some 575,669 pounds of chemicals, including SO2, into air, water and waste facilities. It may be no surprise, then, that residents of Richmond suffer statistically significant higher risks of dying from heart disease and strokes and are more likely to go to hospitals for asthma than any other nearby county residents.

Conversely, one study in France reported a significant reduction in hospital visits related to SO2 exposure during the period of a national oil-refinery strike in France—when oil production ceased temporarily, and SO2 emissions dropped.

SO2 and NOx emissions represent a known and significant health risk from routine oil, gas and coal production—yet these emissions from oil and gas accidents pose additional—and unforeseen—risks. Worse, many oil- and gas-related accidents are not reported to the public at all—such as the 300 oil pipeline spills in North Dakota, which, since 2010, have never been reported. Accidents, whether reported or not, are a significant contributor to SO2 contamination and represent a serious public health risk. More than 42,000 tons of SO2 were released from oil and gas accidents—in Texas alone—between 2009 and 2011.

This raises the question: just how much SO2 and NOx is emitted from fossil fuel sources, and exposed to the public, without anyone ever knowing about it?

4. Petroleum Coke (Pet Coke)

Fossil Fuel Source: Oil (particularly tar sands bitumen)

Pet coke is an increasingly abundant by-product of tar sands bitumen oil processing. It is a heavy dust which resembles coal. It contains dozens of dangerous chemicals and heavy metals, including chromium, vanadium, sulfur and selenium. Research on its risks to public health have been scant; the little research so far is inconclusive. As explained by Chris Weisener, a researcher at the University of Windsor: “there is not much information about pet coke available, so its effects are not conclusively known.”

Does, in fact, pet coke represent a public health threat?

“From the air perspective, as long as it’s not being burned, the only concern would be fugitive dust,” said Chris Ethridge of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. (As if “fugitive dust”—laced with toxins—would be perfectly harmless floating freely in the air.)

In fact, it is burned. The huge expansion of the tar sands oil mining in Alberta has created an unprecedented abundance of pet coke, which is now being used instead of coal in coal-powered power plants. It has become a huge export commodity in its own right. From Jan. 2011 to Sept. 2012, the U.S. exported more than 8.6 million tons of pet coke to China, most of which was likely burned in coal-fired power plants. (The largest pet coke trader in the world is Oxbow Corporation, owned by William Koch—brother of known fossil fuel industrialists David and Charles Koch.)

The burning of pet coke not only poses significant health risks—it is also an egregious contributor to global climate change. When burned, pet coke emits five to 10 percent more CO2 even than coal.

But pet coke’s dangers are hidden from the public. The industry classifies it as a “refinery byproduct,” which allows it to be excluded from most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands oil production—ignoring completely its dangerous end-use effects.

As tar sands oil production in Alberta has increased exponentially in the past decade, its waste stream can no longer be hidden away in the remote Canadian hinterland. Piles of pet coke this year turned up in Detroit and Chicago, “exported” from the tar sands production fields in Alberta, where it is now stored for subsequent export.

Dark, rising clouds of pet coke have sparked public protests in Detroit and Chicago, lawsuits (the Koch brothers are accused of illegal pet coke storage, to nobody’s surprise), health complaints and charges of environmental racism (it’s dumped, like much industrial waste, in low-income, mostly non-white neighborhoods).

Nevertheless, as an increasingly abundant by-product of the expanding tar sands oil industry, it is becoming a “profitable” fossil fuel product in its own right, even spawning its own own industry support groups: the 13th annual Petcoke Conference is being held in San Diego in Feb. 2014, hosted by “The Jacobs Group“—one of the leading “pet coke service industries.”

The industry ignores the public health dangers, the environmental hazards and the dramatic climate implications of pet coke; it is instead presented—as seen in the industry website snapshot below, as an exciting element of an expanding new energy industry. In truly Orwellian language, climate-killing pet coke is presented in attractive terms with these words: “amid accelerating change, standing still is not an option.”

5. Formaldehyde

Fossil Fuel Source: Natural Gas

Formaldehyde is a carcinogen with known links to leukemia and rare nasopharyngeall cancers, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde is highly toxic regardless of method of intake. It is a potent allergen and genotoxin. Studies have linked spontaneous abortions, congenital malformations, low birth weights, infertility and endometriosis to formaldehyde exposure. Epidemiological studies link exposure to formaldehyde to DNA alteration. It is also contributes to ground-level ozone.

Formaldehyde is commonly used in fracking— although, the industry does not report the details of its use.

In 2006, the fracking industry was granted waivers from federal clean air and water regulations (known as The Halliburton Loophole) — since then, it has operated with few, if any, reporting requirements regarding the chemicals it uses. (The waiver was promoted by the Bush-Cheney White House; Cheney, of course, was the former CEO of Halliburton).

Independent studies, however, have detected dangerous levels of formaldehyde in both wastewater and ambient air emissions from fracking operations. One researcher, with the Houston Advanced Research Center, said reading from one test site in north Texas, “astoundingly high,” and, “I’ve never heard of ambient (formaldehyde) concentrations that high… except in Brazil.”

The designation of formaldehyde as a dangerous ingredient in fossil fuel production has been vigorously contested by both the fossil fuel industry and by the members of the U.S. Congress who receive huge funds from the industry.

In 2009, Koch Industries, one of the nation’s largest fossil fuel companies, lobbied against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed declaration that formaldehyde “should be treated as [a] known human carcinogen.” The largest recipients of oil and gas industry contributions in the U.S. Congress, including Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) and Sen. Vitter (R-LA), also lobbied extensively against the designation.

Sen. Vitter, indeed, accepts money directly from the formaldehyde industry. According to Talking Points Memo, his election campaign received about $20,500 in 2009 from companies that produce large amounts of formaldehyde waste in Louisiana. His preferences for the people of Louisiana are clear, and they aren’t the avoidance of cancer.

6. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)

Fossil Fuel Sources: Oil and Coal

In actuality, this is not a single listing—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) is an entire class of toxic chemicals, linked together by their unique chemical structure and reactive properties. I include them on this list because they are frequently cited collectively as a primary fossil fuel pollutant.

Many PAHs are known human carcinogens and genetic mutagens. In addition, there are particular prenatal health risks: prenatal exposure to PAHs is linked to childhood asthma, low birth weight, adverse birth outcomes including heart malformations and DNA damage.

Additionally, recent studies link exposure to childhood behavior disorders; researchers from Columbia University, in a 2012 Columbia University study, found a strong link between prenatal PAH exposure and early childhood depression. Infants found to have elevated PAH levels in their umbilical cord blood were 46% more likely to eventually score highly on the anxiety/depression scale than those with low PAH levels in cord blood. The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The rapid development of the Alberta tar sands oil fields in Alberta, Canada, has coincided with both the discovery of dangerous levels of PAHs in the region and multiple reports of significantly higher rates of cancer and other diseases in the adjacent communities. As reported in one local newspaper:

More women in the community are contracting lupus. Infant asthma rates have also increased. During the summer months, it is not uncommon to find mysterious lesions and sores after swimming in Lake Athabasca. “When you look at what is happening in the area, it can’t not be related to development,” says Eriel Deranger, a spokesperson for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. “Too many times, we see things in the animals and health that the elders have never seen before.”

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 provides another window into the previously hidden dangers of PAHs in oil production. Following the massive spill, scientists found PAH levels to be 40 times higher than before the spill.

Local fisherman, normally accustomed to some of the most abundant and healthy fisheries in the U.S., subsequently reported finding horribly mutated shrimp with tumors on their heads, some lacking eyes and eye sockets, clawless crabs “with shells that look like they’ve been burned off by chemicals.” An increasing number of scientists from diverse specialties—biologists, fish physiologists, environmental toxologists—from Louisiana State University, North Carolina University, North Texas University and others cite PAHs from the spill as the most likely culprit.

The effects of PAHs to wildlife in the Gulf waters—coming to light several years after the spill—may merit attention across the American heartland as U.S. domestic oil production increases dramatically.

Will North Dakotans, for example, soon begin to see a sharp rise in rare cancers, due to the hundreds of unreported PAH-infused oil pipeline spills in that state since 2012, like their unfortunate northern neighbors in Alberta are now experiencing near the tar sands fields?

Is this what we mean by “energy independence?”

7. Mercury

Fossil Fuel Source: Coal

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin. It damages the brain and the nervous system either through inhalation, ingestion or contact with the skin. It is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children. It is known to disrupt the development of the in-vitro brain. In low doses, mercury may affect a child’s development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span, and causing learning disabilities. High dose prenatal and infant exposures to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and numbness of the fingers and toes.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of airborne mercury emissions in the U.S. The mercury emitted from such plants can travel thousands of miles; scientists recently linked the chemical fingerprint of mercury found in fish in deep portions of the Pacific Ocean to coal power plants thousands of miles away in Asia.

Here in the U.S., many of the largest coal-powered power plants are located within 50-100 miles of some of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, including Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Austin.

One out of every six women of childbearing age in the U.S. have blood mercury levels that could be harmful to a fetus, according to EPA reports. The EPA estimates that 300,000 children are born each year at risk for significant development disorders due to mercury exposure.

You may not hear references to mercury in the television ads speaking about “clean coal.” But it’s in there, too.

8. Silica (Silicon Dust/Fracking Sand)

Fossil Fuel Source: Natural Gas

Crystalline silica (“frac sand“) is a known human carcinogen; breathing silica dust can lead to silicosis, a form of lung disease with no cure.

Silica is commonly used, in huge amounts, during fracking operations. Each stage of the process requires hundreds of thousands of pounds of silica quartz–containing sand. Millions of pounds may be used for a single well.

The presence of silica in fracking operations, simply put, is a major safety risk with a high likelihood of dangerous exposure. Case in point: researchers from the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently collected air samples at 11 fracking sites in five different “fracking states” (CO, ND, PA, TX and AR) to evaluate worker exposure to silica. Every single site had measures higher than the NIOSH threshold for safe exposure—so high, in fact, that about one-third of the samples collected were even above the safe threshold for wearing a safety respirator mask. This was reported in May 2013 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.

The natural gas industry and its political allies have lobbied extensively against safety regulations and chemical disclosure laws; there are no federal or state standards for silica in ambient air, despite the high risks involved in acquiring lung disease. In 2006, the natural gas industry was given a waiver from the Clean Air and Water Act, granting the industry “free reign” in using the chemicals it needed without the strict rules of disclosure and/or regulation which other polluting industries were beholden to. (The waiver, of course, was an executive branch ruling—that is, approved only with the permission of the Bush/Cheney White House.)

The industry exerts considerable influence in state policies as well, with particular influence in the main “fracking states”: North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Wisconsin. The relationship between the former Governor of Pennsylvania and the gas industry is a strong example: Gov. Corbett (R-PA), over his political career, received more than $2 million dollars in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industries (oil, coal and gas). Their support, arguably, was a crucial factor behind his 2010 election victory. In that election, the industry favored Corbett over his opponent, Dan Onorato, by more than 10:1, giving the Corbett campaign $1.3 million while only contributing $130,300 to Ontorato.

Corbett, ever the gentleman, said “thank you” to his benefactors two years later when he pushed a law through the state legislature which restricted the rights of doctors from discussing with their patients potential links between symptoms and chemicals used in nearby fracking operations —adjacent to residential property, for example. (This was at the same time that numerous studies, including this one from the National Academy of Sciences, were reporting these very same links). This “gagging” law by Gov. Corbett was cited by the New England Journal of Medicine, which accused the gas industry of “infringing on clinical practice and the patient-physician relationship” in Pennsylvania.

The fracking industry, in fact, is increasing its use of silica. New fracking techniques are currently being developed (using “shorter and wider” fracks) which will use significantly higher volumes of silica dust than ever before. The industry, expecting a period of growth, is ignoring the high risks of lung cancer and, instead, touting the expected rise in “frack sand stock value.”

9. Radon

Fossil Fuel Use: Natural Gas

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless radioactive gas which causes lung cancer. It is the second largest cause of lung cancer in the U.S. after cigarette smoking. About 20,000 people per year die from lung cancer attributed to radon exposure according to the National Cancer Institute. Further, there is no known threshold below which radon exposures carries no risk.

Radon exposure can come from a variety of natural sources. However, the newly-developed fossil fuel extraction methods collectively known as fracking (natural gas) represents a significant new and increased source of radon exposure to millions of citizens. Radon is released into local groundwater and air during fracking operations. It also travels through pipelines to the point of use—be it a power plant or a home kitchen.

The science behind radon release and exposure is complex but explained well here by Christopher Busby, the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, who warns that radon dangers from fracking “have not been addressed properly (or at all) by the environmental impact statements published by the operators, or by the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA.”

The proliferation of fracking in the U.S. has raised increased concern that the long-term public health consequences of radon exposure are being ignored in favor of the perceived short-term economic advantage of using fracked gas. In New York City, for example, Mayor Bloomberg has promoted the increased use of newly fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale region fields in Pennsylvania: the Spectra Pipeline, for example, is a massive new gas pipeline which, on Nov. 1, went on-line and is now transporting up to 800 million cubic feet of fracked gas into the center of Manhattan every day.

The industry (and NYC Mayor Bloomberg) touts the development of fracking as an achievement for “clean energy” and American energy “independence.” The laws of chemistry and biology, however, tend to ignore patriotic soundbites, and Mayor Bloomberg is not doing New Yorkers any favors from importing newly fracked gas from Pennsylvania: the radon levels from wells in the Marcellus Shale are significantly higher than elsewhere in the U.S. This fact, combined with the short travel distance to end use in New York means that citizens throughout the most populated city in the U.S. will now be exposed to more amounts of this highly carcinogenic gas than ever before—in their homes, at work, in schools and yards above the highly pressurized pipelines running throughout the not-so-invulnerable New York City underground power grid (remember Sandy?), on the very streets of Manhattan.

“City and state leaders have failed to think through the consequences of promoting radon-laced natural gas, and they failed to heed clear warning signs that gas from Pennsylvania represents a major threat to the public health of New Yorkers,” said Albert Appleton, former commission of the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection and senior fellow at the Cooper Union Institute of Sustainable Design.

Another industry expert, Marvin Resnikoff, a PhD physicist and international radioactive waste consultant, put it more succinctly. Using fracked gas from Marcellus, he said, will directly lead to thousands of new cases of lung cancer in New York.

Long-term studies from diverse science, research and public health organizations, such as this one from the Federal Office of Public Health, provide evidence to take these warnings seriously. Many of these studies provide evidence that indoor radon causes a significant number of lung cancer cases in the general population.

Dr. Resnikoff cited the the lack of attention, however, given to radon dangers by the New York State Department of Conservation’s Environmental Impact Statement on the use of Marcellus Shale fracked gas. “In the entire 1400 page statement there is only one sentence containing the word “radon” and no consideration of this significant public health hazard.” Read his full report here.

Such government apathy runs contrary to the findings by the world’s leading public health and science organizations who have published very clear warnings. Organizations such as the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute, all articulate a definitive, well-established connection between radon and lung cancer.

…and yet, like the tobacco industry in years past, today’s fossil fuel industry denies the science. Thus, a spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a gas industry trade group, recently disputed the findings of the world scientific community about the dangers of radon: “Their claims are unsupported by facts and science,” says MSC spokesman Travis Windle.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition’s website, it should be noted, makes no mention of the bloody lungs and painful bone metastases which, eventually, occur in end-stage lung cancer resulting from radon. Instead, it refers to the promise of “clean, job-creating American natural gas.” (Yes, the website actually says “clean.”)

10. Hydrofluoric Acid (HF) / Hydrogen Fluoride

Fossil Fuel Source: Oil and Gas

Hydrofluoric acid (HF) is “one of the most dangerous acids known.” HF can immediately damage lungs, leading to chronic lung disease; contact on skin penetrates to deep tissue, including bone, where it alters cellular structure. HF can be fatal if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through skin.

The senior laboratory safety coordinator at the University of Tennessee said, “Hydrofluoric Acid is an acid like no other. It is so potent that contact with it may not even be noticed until long after serious damage has been done.”

Hydrofluoric Acid is a common ingredient used in oil and gas extraction.

Numerous studies, including recent ones conducted by both The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the United Steelworkers Union (USU) cite the oil industry’s abysmal safety record as a high risk factor for a major HF accident; over the past decade, more than 7,600 accidental chemical releases from refineries have been reported by the industry. In the past three years alone, a total of 131 “minor” accidents involved HF.

One major refinery’s experience speaks volumes about the fossil fuel industry’s disregard for safety and public health: the BP Texas City refinery. This single refinery has accumulated more than 600 safety violations, which, inevitably, led to tragedy: in 2005, a series of explosions at the refinery killed 15 people and injured hundreds more.

This tragedy, however, was not entirely unforeseen by BP. Internal BP memos subsequently revealed that, in the days before the explosion, refinery managers in Texas lamented that “safety is not viewed as the #1 priority” (by company executives in London). Indeed, the memos discussed the likelihood that the refinery “would kill someone.” (This is the same BP which federal investigators found responsible for numerous safety failures leading to the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill.)

And it isn’t only the workers who are at risk. Public health officials have long warned that HF accidents at oil refineries have a high likelihood of causing “mass casualties.” within the civilian population at large.

50 U.S. refineries use HF, many in close proximity to highly populated urban areas such as Houston, Memphis and Philadelphia. THE CPI study estimates some 16 million people are within dangerous range of an accidental HF release—HF travels easily in the air, at great distance.

And there’s more: the Center for American Progress listed HF as the nation’s second most dangerous industrial chemical vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The fossil fuel industry is subject to little regulatory oversight. Federal rules for the use of HF in oil and gas refining are almost non-existant; there is no mention of the topic in the Bureau of Land Management’s recent draft rule for well stimulation methods with HF use (including fracking).

The oil and gas industry spends considerably on lobbying and political campaign contributions to ensure the rules remain lax. In 2013, so far, it has spent more than $100 million in federal lobbying, ranking third among all U.S. industries in federal lobbying. In the past 15 years, the oil and gas industry has spent approximately $1.4 billion in federal lobbying. The energy exercises further influence through additional massive contributions to the political campaigns of friendly U.S. congresspersons. It has contributed millions of dollars to the campaigns of Sen. Inhoffe, Sen. McConnel (R-KY), Sen. Vitter, Sen. Boehner (R-OH), Sen. Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Blunt (R-MO) and others, all of whom have proven loyal to the industry by consistently voting against proposed new safety and public health oversight and regulations.

The lack of regard to the enormous risks to the public posed by HF in fossil fuel production was summarized by a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, one of the largest oil industry lobby groups in the nation, who, when asked to respond to questions about HF safety, simply said: “We use HF acid because it’s effective.”

Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.

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