The Federal Emergency Management Administration considers earthquakes along the Wasatch Fault Utah’s biggest natural threat. Eighty percent of Utah's population resides within 15 miles of this fault. For better or worse, we have put nearly all our eggs in one very geologically risky basket.
Seismologists calculate that there is a nearly 1 in 2 chance that a major earthquake (magnitude 6.75 or greater) will strike the Wasatch Front in the next 50 years. Such an earthquake would damage a majority of the region’s masonry building foundations, rupture chemical storage tanks, as well as gas, water and sewer lines. Life-threatening injuries are projected at nearly 10,000, with economic damages of $35 billion.
The major infrastructure most at risk is “Refinery Row.” These five oil refineries are built on top of the fault line, on ground prone to liquefaction. More than 70 years old, these aging refineries are not engineered to withstand a major earthquake. When it comes, experts anticipate natural gas-fed fires and explosions, loss of electrical power to operate safety switches and valves, and loss of the water needed to cool pipes, extinguish fires and tamp down toxic vapor clouds. Hazardous chemicals and acid aerosols can be expected to pour into surrounding neighborhoods. Depending on wind direction, they could spread over downtown Salt Lake City, only six miles away. These refineries border residential neighborhoods, commercial districts and elementary schools. They are public-health time bombs that a major earthquake will detonate.
Worse yet, if a major earthquake struck tomorrow, it would likely expose thousands of Wasatch Front residents to a hellish chemical — hydrogen fluoride. Breathing hydrogen fluoride swells the lungs, fills them with fluid and soon causes the victim to suffocate. At high concentrations, brief exposure is lethal. When released, hydrogen fluoride forms a toxic cloud that is denser than air. These clouds hug the ground and can spread for miles without losing their ability to kill. Because it quickly damages human tissue of all types, and dissipates slowly, large releases of hydrogen fluoride in urban areas can inflict mass casualties.
Nationally, 50 refineries use hydrogen fluoride, even though safer alternatives are available. They have experienced 131 hydrogen fluoride releases or near misses in recent years. The list includes three Salt Lake refineries. A major earthquake could rupture hydrogen fluoride storage tanks in all three, exposing 1.2 million Utahns to multiple releases of the chemical.
In matters of safety, Utah’s oil refineries essentially regulate themselves — but not effectively. For more than 10 years, they have averaged one fire, explosion or chemical release every nine days. Although most of these incidents did not involve hydrogen fluoride, these high overall accident rates are the best predictor of whether refineries that still use the chemical will eventually have a serious accident with it.
In Utah, there is a dangerous regulatory vacuum. Utah’s Division of Air Quality denies responsibility for monitoring accidental refinery releases. Utah’s OSHA counterpart only investigates accidental releases that injure refinery workers. Neither agency investigates whether refineries store and use hydrogen fluoride safely, and neither is making plans for how the Wasatch Front would deal with a major hydrogen fluoride release.
In January 2017, Barack Obama’s EPA issued its “Chemical Disaster Rule” to fill this regulatory vacuum. The rule requires Salt Lake refineries that use hydrogen fluoride to consider less hazardous alternatives, to find the root causes of chemical accidents, to draft accident response plans and to disclose their use of harmful chemicals to workers, first responders and residents who are at risk, letting them better prepare for an accident.6 comments on this story
Scott Pruitt’s EPA plans to abandon these safeguards. He would rather save the oil refineries pennies on the “disaster dollar” — saving an average refinery a few hundred thousand dollars while risking the billions of dollars’ worth of harm that a major release of hydrogen fluoride could inflict on our region. If a major earthquake strikes the Wasatch Front, many residents will pay with their lives for the repeal of these crucial safety regulations.
Representing Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, I testified against repealing this rule at a recent EPA hearing. Our congressional delegation should stand with the residents of the Wasatch Front and their doctors and ask Trump’s EPA to withdraw this threat to our health and safety.