Shut Philadelphia refinery begins risky job of removing toxic chemical

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(Reuters) – Workers at the fire-damaged Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery took the first steps this week toward ridding the plant of roughly 30,000 barrels of modified hydrofluoric acid, a dangerous undertaking that has rarely, if ever, been performed under similar circumstances.

In the minutes after the blaze and a series of explosions at the PES refinery on June 21, operations workers activated an emergency system that swiftly dumped the acid into a protective vessel before it could spread a harmful fog over the city. 

Hydrofluoric acid is a highly toxic chemical used to make high-octane gasoline in more than one-third of U.S. refineries. Exposure can cause people’s eyes to burn and lead to severe health problems, including death. It has been used in refinery operations for 70 years, and labor unions and environmentalists have warned about its presence in densely populated areas.

The bulk of neutralizing is expected to begin next week, said Kathy Matheson, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Fire Department, one of several city, state and federal agencies that will help monitor the process.

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