Torrance activists seeking to ban a highly-toxic chemical from two South Bay refineries will announce Saturday, Feb. 15, a “call to action” in an effort to pressure the state to investigate what the legal analyses used to justify its continued use.
The announcement — which the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance is scheduled to make during a 9 a.m. press conference — will come days before the fifth anniversary of an explosion at the Torrance Refinery, then owned by ExxonMobil, which injured four contract employees and, federal officials have said, almost caused a disastrous accidental release of modified hydrofluoric acid.
PBF Energy, which now owns the refinery, has long defended using the modified version of hydrofluoric acid, as officials did in a statement Friday afternoon, and have pointed out that the refinery has never had an offsite release of either modified hydrofluoric acid or the modified version since it opened in 1966.
Officials for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the regional pollution watchdog, did not return requests for comment.
Still, representatives of the county Department of Public Health and South Bay Supervisor Janice Hahn, proponents of phasing out hyrdroflouric acid, are expected to attend the press conference at the DoubleTree Hotel in Torrance. The alliance, meanwhile, has said it also hopes local elected officials will add their voices to the campaign in the coming months.
The Torrance Refinery and another in Wilmington are the only two in the state that use hydrofluoric acid. But refinery officials have long maintained that the modified hydrofluoric acid used at the plants confers an additional safety advantage, preventing its widespread release, and regulators have OK’d its continued use.
The alliance said it plans to send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom Tuesday, Feb. 18 — the five-year anniversary of the explosion — urging him to have Attorney General Xavier Becerra open an investigation.
“It’s critical that the attorney general’s office undertake an investigation,” the letter reads in part. “Thousands of lives are at risk.”
Torrance Refinery spokeswoman Abena Williams said officials are aware of the TRAA’s letter to the governor.
We disagree with them,” she said via email, “because the use of modified hydrofluoric acid has been thoroughly and extensively reviewed over the last three years by local, state, county and federal regulatory agencies.”
The modifying agent in MHF inhibits the formation of a toxic cloud upon its release into the air, refinery officials have said. They have also said phasing out the chemical could shutter the only two refineries in the state using the acid, throw thousands out of work and increase gas prices throughout the state.
Two separate, decades-old legal processes — including a confidential court-ordered consent decree, negotiated by ExxonMobil and inherited by PBF Energy — allowed the two refineries to use the modified version of hydrofluoric acid.
The alliance, in its letter, cited a 2018 meeting of the AQMD, which at the time was considering whether to phase out the chemical’s use. The proposed ban was eventually rejected, after a lengthy study, in favor of an industry-backed plan that instead proposed additional safety measures at the refineries.
Two experts at the 2018 meeting, who had conducted industry-sponsored tests on hydrofluoric acid and the modified version, were unable to assure AQMD officials whether the additive meant to inhibit the formation of a toxic ground-hugging cloud provided a significant safety advantage at the local refineries. This “new information” warrants a second look at the legal basis allowing the acid’s use, the alliance’s letter said.
The proprietary nature of modified hydrofluoric acid has long hampered efforts by government officials and safety experts to substantiate arguments the oil industry has made about the chemical’s safety.
Officials with the Torrance Refinery — which, according to its website, employs nearly 600 people and supplies about 20% of Southern California’s gasoline demand — have also said modified hydrofluoric acid, a catalyst used in the refining process, is the most commercially viable technology.
But in December, a panel of federal judges ordered ExxonMobil to hand over technical analyses addressing the safety effectiveness of the additive in modified hydroflouric acid, and the volume and concentration of the acid in two tanks near the 2015 explosion. The Environmental Protection Agency also wanted risk-management plans over the last 15 years that address the hazards of the chemical and the safeguards in place.
And last month, the EPA fined PBF Energy $125,000 after finding “inaccuracies” in the Torrance Refinery’s mandated risk-management plan, including failing to conduct a proper hazard assessment.
The refinery was also required to spend more than $200,000 on safety enhancements, which Williams said are underway.
“We are continuously making investments to make (MHF’s) use even safer,” she said, “with 12 new safety enhancements (we) voluntarily agreed to implement in cooperation with the AQMD, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and federal EPA.”