07/16/2010 09:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In The Public Interest : Worst Case Scenarios Really Happen

The April 20 explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the subsequent ongoing leak of millions of gallons of oil have called attention to the fact that worst case scenarios actually do happen.

And when they do, the actual event can be markedly worse than the even the projected worst case.

For BP, April 20th wasn't the first time.

On March 23, 2005, an explosion at a BP oil refinery in Texas City TX killed 15 employees and injured more than 170. It was the third major accident in a year at the refinery. Although it didn't involve the release of a dangerous substance, the refinery does use and store the dangerous hydrofluoric acid (HF).

As the Gulf oil catastrophe drags on, it turns out that BP's Anthony Hayward's claims of safety improvements in its drilling and refining operations haven't been quite on the mark. As a recent Wall Street Journal investigation notes, BP has "a record that doesn't always match" Hayward's claims.

Oil refineries like BP's Texas City refinery use hydrofluoric acid in the process of turning crude oil into high-octane gasoline. A major release of hydrofluoric acid can form a dangerous airborne plume that drifts miles downward. BP's reports to the EPA Risk Management Program estimate that more than half a million people live in the vulnerability zone of a worst case release of the chemical from that plant alone.

Exposure to hydrofluoric acid results in devastating burns, and pain associated with the exposure may be delayed for up to 24 hours. If the burn is not addressed, tissue destruction may continue for days. Inhalation of fumes can cause symptoms ranging from severe throat irritation to pulmonary edema.

The good news is there are safer alternatives to hydrofluoric acid already in use in the oil industry, and more in development. BP's Texas City facility is one of only 50 refineries still using HF in its process. Another 100 facilities that U.S. PIRG studied after the 2005 accident were using sulfuric acid, which is easier to contain and prevent airborne exposure. Solid acid alkylation processes are emerging that would eliminate the danger of a catastrophic release.

One hundred ten million Americans live in the shadow of catastrophic poison gas release from one of 300 chemical facilities. Oil refineries, chemical companies and water treatment facilities use and store large quantities of high hazard chemicals - chlorine or sulfur dioxide gas, hydrofluoric acid, and anhydrous ammonia are the most common and the most dangerous - putting thousands of people in the surrounding community at risk in the event of a release.

Safer more secure chemical processes already exist that can replace virtually all of these hazards. More than 280 U.S. chemical facilities - from drinking water treatment plants to oil refineries - are already using safer chemicals or processes, proving that we don't have to put communities at unnecessary risk. In March, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chair Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) called the use of safer chemicals or processes "the only foolproof way to defeat a terrorist determined to strike a chemical facility."

In November 2009, the House of Representatives passed the Chemical and Water Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2868), which will require thousands of facilities where a toxic release endangers the surrounding community to assess their ability to "reduce the consequences of a terrorist attack" by switching to safer alternative chemicals or processes.

Now it's the Senate's turn. This week, Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Senate version of this important chemical safety measure - the Secure Chemical Facilities Act (PDF) and the Secure Water Facilities Act (PDF).

This legislation has the support of a growing coalition of labor, community, public health, first responder and environmental groups (PDF) who all recognize that the most common sense way to prevent catastrophic consequences of an attack or accident to is to use and store less hazardous chemicals in the first place.

The Senate should waste no more time bringing this important protection for America's communities to the President's desk. As the BP Deepwater accident shows, worst case scenarios can happen, they do happen, and they can produce worse than worst case results.