PES refinery clean up continues with rare, risky process

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia Energy Solutions is in bankruptcy, hoping for a buyer, and most of the workers have been laid off with no severance in the wake of June’s explosion and fire. But for the skeleton crew that remains, the rare and risky work of clearing the site of tens of thousands of gallons of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid (HF) continues with grim determination.

“It’s been a tough emotional status out there but no matter what’s happening, all the guys just had a positive attitude and are working hard,” said Eric Eckenrode, co-founder of Nevada-based EnvTech, which is overseeing the disposal process. “I think it’s important to get out that they care as much about this town as everyone else and it’s nice to have that kind of support out there.”

Eckenrode says he developed the HF disposal process after a similar explosion and fire at a Texas refinery in 2008 created a similar problem: a damaged alkylation unit that was still full of HF.

He says he scoured the country trying to find someone who had experience with the situation and could help but found no one.

So his company, which normally cleans alkylation units for reuse, designed a strong base and a process for getting the HF out of the unit and into the base. This is the second time he’s used it and hopes it’s the last.

“I don’t want to be known as the guy who neutralizes acid because I hope it doesn’t have to happen again,” he said.

HF is deadly because it can penetrate the skin and then attack calcium in the body. Eckenrode says a splash that covered 10 to 15 square inches of skin would be fatal.

“It’ll attach and start breaking down your bones and then it will actually bind up the calcium in your blood and cause cardiac arrest,” he explained.

READ: Potential buyer for fire-damaged South Philly refinery has been identified

The workers turning the valves on the HF line wear a full suit of rubber, including a face mask, for protection, “which is pretty warm in the last couple weeks because it’s been brutally hot out here,” he explained.

The process itself generates more heat, but not as much as would be created if the base were simply added to the HF.

Eckenrode says that’s why it’s crucial that the HF be added to the base, a proprietary solution that EnvTech calls ETI991.

“The reaction occurs superfast to neutralize and essentially destroy the acid on contract,” Eckenrode said.

The process started just over two weeks ago, and Eckenrode expects the HF will all be neutralized by the end of the week.

“It’s kind of a rewarding feeling to be able to have completed this twice safely,” he said, then added, “Knock on wood. We still have a couple days to go but so far everything’s going well.”

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