THE ACCIDENT

The following is a probable scenario given the information from the Material Safety Data Sheets for Hydrofluoric Acid in a 45-55% solution (from University of Utah Web Site), which is the concentration to be used at the Sumitomo Sitix facility planned for northeast Phoenix, and the history of traffic congestion and accidents along Tatum Boulevard. Sumitomo Sitix has announced that it will have a "just-in-time" inventory, which requires frequent if not daily shipments of Hydrofluoric Acid from Olin, located in Mesa. There is probably no commonly-used industrial chemical more dangerous than Hydrofluoric Acid. Remember: This could have all been avoided by NOT placing the industrial plant in the midst of an established residential area. This accident scenario could happen anywhere along the transportation route. Section 112r of the Clean Air Act requires facilities to examine "worst-case scenarios" in emergency planning, but this generally only applies to accidents and releases that are on-site. The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) has created a county-level emergency planning committe and a state oversight commission. Both invite public awareness and participation.

During rush hour on an already hot summer morning, somewhere on north Tatum Boulevard, a tanker truck carrying Hydrofluoric Acid collides with a careless motorist. The truck rolls over, cracking open its cargo of 220 gallon (one ton) containers of the Hydrofluoric Acid. Some motorists get out of their cars to see if the driver of the tanker is hurt and to offer assistance. Within moments, the fumes begin to irritate and burn the eyes and throats of those nearby. The pool of Hydrofluoric Acid grows, and a cloud of irritating vapor begins to form and drift away from the spill.

But with the traffic congestion, it is difficult to leave the scene quickly. The Hydrofluoric Acid literally eats away at the windows and paint of the cars, and is pulled in by the car's air conditioning systems. In their desperation to escape, some motorists flee their vehicles. Motorists new to the scene drive through the growing pool of what they thought was water, splashing it on other cars and people, and stirring up more fumes. Those unfortunate enough to have had their car windows down now are also hacking and gasping, but the burning of their lungs won't stop. It is a few minutes before the police are called, and even a few minutes more before they arrive. The police do not have protective gear, and don't know what the chemical is until they arrive or how to deal with it. Officers breathe the fumes for minutes as they try to clear the area and while the firefighters are summoned.

It is a few more minutes before firefighters arrive. Meanwhile, the plume of toxic air is moving to the east through shopping centers, schools, residential areas, and hospitals. The toxic cloud will eventually move at least a mile away from the scene, then moves to the north when the wind changes. Unsuspecting people who breathe these fumes suddenly begin to feel a growing burning sensation; some notice a peculiar sharp odor. Their homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses are becoming contaminated with the Hydrofluoric Acid, which is attacking moist surfaces and any metal surfaces, including the air ducts. There has never been shelter-in-place training in these areas, so people don't know to turn off the ventilation systems and to close all doors and windows and stay inside. There is no notification system either, so many more innocent people come into harm's way. Thousands are injured, many permanently, as the Hydrofluoric Acid eats away the lining of their lungs after being inhaled. The buildings also become contaminated with the residues of the Hydrofluoric Acid. Affected people get nauseous and have extreme breathing difficulty. Some victims will die because they did not get the specialized treatment for Hydrofluoric Acid exposure within 15 minutes.

Back at the scene of the tanker mishap, the spray of water onto the pools of Hydrofluoric Acid coupled with some already pooled water in the gutters causes a violent exothermic reaction releasing enough heat to ignite some of the abandoned automobiles, and eventually, the truck with the Hydrofluoric Acid.

The explosions and smoke make matters exponentially worse. As more firefighters try to get to the scene through the crush of traffic, the toxic cloud moves even further. A full-scale evacuation of the areas OUTSIDE of the advancing toxic cloud begins, but nothing can be done to safely evacuate people once the cloud has arrived.

At the scene of the spill, firefighters in full protective gear valiantly work to contain the spill, but due to the heat of the desert day and the fires, they can only work 20 minutes at a time in their moon suits before needing to be relieved and cooled down. There are firefighters arriving from all over the valley, and virtually every ambulance has been called to the area. After a few hours, the scene has been decontaminated. The plume of Hydrofluoric Acid has dissipated to less than 3 parts per million and is no longer considered "life-threatening."
Trauma centers and hospitals are flooded with victims. The Arizona Department of Health Services, Office of Risk Assessment and Investigation announces that this is all "stress and hysteria," before any chemical sampling or monitoring is conducted, and that "the level of chemicals isn't enough to make people sick." They do not provide prompt, complete information to the emergency room personnel and doctors, so the medical professionals do not realize that the treatment for Hydrofluoric Acid burns is not the same as for other acids.

The next day, many more people who had been splashed with the liquid or had breathed the fumes begin to notice strange burns on their skin, and/or burning sensations in their lungs and throats and growing, throbbing, excruciating pain. Some have nearly lost their vision, particularly the police who were first on-scene with no protective gear. They now flood the emergency rooms. There is no relief for their symptoms, as many have been permanently damaged. People find their homes and businesses are contaminated, and become ill from just being there, including the freshly exposed. More people succumb because there was never enough calcium gluconate prepared in advance for such an emergency.

Sumitomo Sitix maintains that its plant has had no "accidents" and that the liability is that of the trucking company that was transporting the Hydrofluoric Acid. Sumitomo Sitix again points to the few hundred jobs it has provided and reminds the public that it was the City of Phoenix that made the final decision to site them there. A Sumitomo spokeperson states that the "planned" transportation route had originally been the proposed Pima Freeway, and that it is not the fault of the company that there was not sufficient taxpayer money to build the freeway as planned. The fact that the impact zone from a spill of a 220 gallon (one ton) container of Hydrofluoric Acid is up to 5.5 miles long and 2.75 miles wide is not mentioned.

The trucking company that had the accident blames the motorist that collided with its truck, but files bankruptcy anyway because its insurance policy is not sufficient to cover the damages. The hapless motorist whose automobile hit the truck has died from exposure to the Hydrofluoric Acid by now, and there are already thousands of times the automobile insurance policy limit in claims. The victims' families blame the decision makers who sited the plant there in the first place. The Phoenix City Council and Mayor, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, and the Arizona Association of Industries have no comment.

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