'Death Cloud' Could Kill Millions of Americans Who Live in Oil Refinery 'Kill Zones,' ABC Frets

February 25th, 2011 4:03 PM

What do oil refineries and rental cars have in common? They will probably kill you, at least according to ABC's Brian Ross.

Ross is either bored with his job or just doesn't seem to care about frightening his viewers with exaggerated reports. But either way, ABC's chief investigative correspondent is breathing new life into the term yellow journalism.

Those who are familiar with Ross's work might notice an emerging pattern of sensationalism. The latest case studies concern oil refineries in Texas, which Ross's colleague described as the "toxic threat next door," and rental cars, which Ross himself cautioned are like "a consumer's version of Russian roulette."

The former report, appearing on the February 24 "Nightline," focused on a CITGO oil refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas that uses hydrofluoric acid in the refining process. This chemical, Ross warned, has made "fear" a "fact of life" for residents of the local community.

An apocalyptic Ross foretold the end times: "An unchecked release of the hydrofluoric acid, as seen in this test film, creating a kind of death cloud that swept across the Nevada desert."

Ross interviewed government scientists who spelled out the life-threatening effects of hydrofluoric acid and a few residents who "keep a bag packed at the door, ready to flee" if the aforementioned "death cloud" ever creeps up on them, but he only spoke with one source who supported the refinery and accused the oil industry of not taking safety seriously.

"You would admit it's not a good safety record?" asked Ross, interviewing Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, even though Drevna made no such statement.

Ross parroted unnamed "officials" who claim that only "luck" has prevented the ominous "death cloud" from engulfing Corpus Christi: "Can you really rely on luck to protect the American public?"

Drevna retorted that the industry relies on "technology," not luck, to ensure safety, but Ross would not let the facts get in the way of a good story: "Hardly reassuring words for the people of Corpus Christi who hear the sirens all day and all night, wondering if this is the day their luck will run out."

Residents of Corpus Christi are not the only people who should fear for their lives. Ross cited a study by the Center for Public Integrity, a liberal group, to fret that "16 million unsuspecting Americans [live] in potential kill zones."

That's right, Ross implied that millions of "unsuspecting" Americans live in areas that could be swept up in a "death cloud" at any moment.

If the story of the boy who cried wolf has a moral, it has been lost on Ross, who frequently hyperbolizes the findings of his "investigations," often to paint a depressing picture of the future.

In 2005, Ross sensationally hyped the epidemic potential of bird flu: "It could kill a billion people worldwide, make ghost towns out of parts of major cities, and there is not enough medicine to fight it. It is called the avian flu."

Fast forward to August 2009, when Ross drew a ludicrous connection between health care town hall protesters and racist hate groups, quoting Mark Potok of the left wing Souther Poverty Law Center: "I think that the president has, in effect, triggered fears among a fairly large numbers [sic] of white people in this country that they are somehow losing their country."

On January 18, 2010, Ross bizarrely asserted that U.S. soldiers were "endangered" by "secret Jesus codes" scrawled on rifles used in Afghanistan.

And just this morning, on "Good Morning America," Ross somberly proclaimed that "renting a car may be a consumer's version of Russian roulette."

Apparently convinced that death lurks behind every corner, Ross has yet to file a "Nightline" investigation into the threat posed by his own shadow (that's called hyperbole).

A transcript of the "Nightline" investigation into "dangerous" oil refineries can be found below:

February 24, 2011

11:47 p.m. EST

CYNTHIA MCFADDEN: When we come back, the toxic threat next door. Millions of Americans live near oil refineries. But many don't know how dangerous it could be.


MCFADDEN: And now to energy. With all that's going on in the Middle East, the price of crude topped $100 a barrel yesterday for the first time since 2008. To turn that pricey crude into gas for the car, the oil, of course, must be refined. But investigators have found many refineries have failed to properly maintain aging equipment. Brian Ross says that has led to grave concerns. Brian?

BRIAN ROSS, ABC News chief investigative correspondent: Cynthia, the business of turning oil into gasoline involves lots of dangerous chemicals. But one chemical in particular has federal safety and homeland security officials very worried. And, as we found, for good reason. In Corpus Christi, Texas, the warning sirens come all times of the day and night, from the oil refineries just down the street.

JANIE MUMPHORD, Corpus Christi resident: You never know when you go to bed if you're going to live through the night, or if you have to run through the night.

ROSS: Fear is a fact of life for miles around in this community. People wonder, is it a test? A false alarm? Or the real thing like the last time?

JOHN EVANS, Corpus Christi resident: You hear a whistle blow for a few minutes and you don't know if you're going to have an explosion or whatever.

ROSS: Few have forgotten what happened the last time, less than two years ago, when an explosion at the CITGO refinery released a highly lethal chemical called hydrofluoric acid that just barely missed the neighborhood.

AL BRADLEY, Corpus Christi resident: Flames were straight down the street there at the refinery and some flames were coming over the top of those trees.

ROSS: Now, some residents keep a bag packed at the door, ready to flee.

JEAN SALONE, Corpus Christi resident: The fear is there and it's there for everybody.

ROSS: This is what they fear. An unchecked release of the hydrofluoric acid, as seen in this test film, creating a kind of death cloud that swept across the Nevada desert. It's a risk far beyond just Corpus Christi. An ABC N ews investigation with the Center for Public Integrity, found 50 oil refine rips using the chemical, from Houston to Minneapolis to Los Angeles to Philadelphia and in between, putting some 16 million unsuspecting Americans in potential kill zones.

Dr. RONALD KOOPMAN, retired government scientist: Your lungs hurt, you can't breathe. The lungs can't function. Eventually you die from asphyxiation.

ROSS: Dr. Ronald Koopman was a scientist when he helped conduct the studies in conjunction with Amoco oil.

KOOPMAN: It actually penetrates the skin, destroying the issue, trying to get to the bones and react. It's a very, very strong acid.

ROSS: This is really nasty.

KOOPMAN: It's really nasty stuff.

ROSS: Dr. Koopman says the oil companies did not want the video made public and insisted on posting a disclaimer that the test could not be used to estimate what might happen in a real accident. But Dr. Koopman says it could.

KOOPMAN: An accident could be this bad. An accident could look like this.

ROSS: There are alternatives to hydrofluoric acid, but the industry says it would be too expensive to retrofit refineries, that the use of the chemical is safe with proper precautions. Charles Drevna is the president of the oil refineries trade group.

CHARLES DREVNA, president of National Petrochemical & Refiners Association: The track record indicates that over 70 years, while there's been incidents, it's been a reliable product that gets the job done.

ROSS: But in the last two years alone, there have been 29 fires and explosions at refineries that use hydrofluoric acid. Including this one, across the river from Bismarck, North Dakota.

DREVNA: Refineries are as safe as we can make them to be.

ROSS: As safe as you can make them?

DREVNA: But we have to understand that safety is the number one issue.

ROSS: You would admit it's not a good safety record?

DREVNA: I'm not saying it's not a good one. But as anything else, it has to be – safety is an evolving process.

ROSS: Investigators say the problem has become critical now because the oil refinery industry has failed to maintain aging equipment. After a hydrofluoric acid release in 2009 at this Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia, near the city's sports stadiums, federal investigators found the company has failed to "correct deficiencies" including an "established history of tube leaks dating back to 1973."

RAFAEL MOURE-ERASO, chairman of US Chemical Safety Board: The priority seems to be on production and safety seems to take a backseat.

ROSS: The chairman of the government's chemical safety board says the industry mentality is to run the refineries until they break.

MOURE-ERASO: So, basically, what we're talking about is, you are running this to failure.

ROSS: In the case of CITGO in Corpus Christi, the company says there was never any danger to the nearby neighborhood due to the hydrofluoric acid release. But officials say for the people that live nearby, it was more a case of luck, a shift in the winds that prevented a catastrophe. Can you really rely on luck to protect the American public?

DREVNA: No and if we relied on luck to protect anything, then we should be up for criticism. But we don't rely on luck. We rely on technology.

ROSS: How do you explain what happened in that case?


ROSS: How do you explain what happened in that case?

DREVNA: We can't look in the rear view mirror.

ROSS: Hardly reassuring words for the people of Corpus Christi who hear the sirens all day and all night, wondering if this is the day their luck will run out. Just yesterday, the state of Texas fined CITGO $300,000 for safety violations at the refinery that led to that last accident. And now, officials of the United Steelworkers Union, whose members work at many of those refineries, are calling on Congress to ban the use of that chemical. Cynthia?

MCFADDEN: Thank you, Brian. You can visit publicintegrity.org for a map of where those refineries are located.

--Alex Fitzsimmons is a News Analysis intern at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.