UPHE testifies before the EPA on the need to protect communities from chemical accidents

Earlier this week UPHE testified before the EPA on the need to strengthen federal regulations intended to protect communities from chemical accidents. Low-income and minority families are often disproportionately and unjustly impacted by such incidents. 

Our testimony is below, it focuses on the risk of accidents at our oil refineries:

“Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment is one of the largest civic organizations of healthcare professionals in the Western US.

Illustrating the urgency of the situation in Utah, the majority of our population lives within a few miles of refinery row, consisting of five refineries, the largest within about two miles of downtown Salt Lake City, and our Capitol Building. Like one third of the refineries in the country, three of our refineries use hydrofluoric acid, despite the ready availability of much safer catalysts such sulfuric acid.

Modeling a worst case scenario of an HF accident at the Holly Oil refinery, the radius of serious exposure, meaning possible death or hospitalization, is 11 miles, including 220,000 people.  

At Big West Oil the worst case scenario is nearly 400,000 people at risk, radius exposure of 11 miles. At Chevron, 1.1 million people are at risk, radius of exposure 22 miles.

These risk zones overlap so the actual cumulative risk for hundreds of thousands of people is even greater. Now add to this risk equation that this same area lies on top of a major fault line, and that the USGS estimates the risk of a major earthquake in the same immediate area in the next 45 years is nearly 50%.  

Of course no one knows for sure what the end result of a worst case scenario would be, but apparently the EPA and numerous oil companies are willing to find out, because these refineries won’t upgrade to safer alternatives and the EPA won’t require it. Given that two thirds of the nation’s refineries are using safer alternatives, no one can say the remaining third cannot do it.  

“Even our very conservative state government, with a governor and legislature that don’t really believe in the climate crisis, they do believe in earth quakes, and they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding schools primarily because of this earth quake risk. At the federal level, any policy that knowingly allows this extreme risk to so many people to continue is an abject failure.

All refineries do not operate under the same risk profile, and the EPA’s proposed standards do not adequately address unique risks of some of these facilities because of their geographic location or the cumulative risks from multiple facilities in one area.   

It is indefensible that multiple refineries positioned squarely  along the Wasatch Fault line are allowed to use HF. If an earthquake does happen, followed by anything close to a worst case scenario at any one of these facilities, gross negligence on the part of government regulations will be rightly identified as the real cause of the catastrophe, not an event of nature.

Earthquakes are hardly our only concern. Over a ten year period, Utah refineries experienced a leak, spill, fire, explosion or air-pollution violation on average every nine days. We’ve had two major oil spills in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City because of corporate cost cutting and malfeasance. One of my friends died as a result.

In Salt Lake City, we need the EPA to act forcefully and definitively to protect us from the very real potential of a massive chemical accident and the catastrophic consequences that would follow.”