Two days before activists take to the streets to demand a ban on highly toxic hydrofluoric acid at the PBF Energy-owned Torrance refinery, company officials on Thursday reaffirmed their commitment to resist any effort to block its use.
PBF officials made the comments in a teleconference with financial analysts to discuss a fourth quarter loss of $75 million, due largely to a pair of Torrance refinery shutdowns late last year in the wake of major power outages.
Jeffrey Dill, who heads up the company’s West Coast operations, contended that the dangerous chemical can be used safely at refineries in Torrance and Wilmington, the only ones in the state that use it.
“The units in Southern California, including the one in Torrance, are some of the most advanced units in the world,” he said, according to a transcript provided by website Seeking Alpha, which offers financial information and stock market insights.
“They have a modified form of hydrofluoric acid and they have a large number of mitigation and safety measures built into them that you don’t necessarily see on plants elsewhere in the country,” Dill added. “So we’re pretty confident that rather than moving away from this proven technology that has operated safely in Torrance for well over 50 years, instead of pushing toward an alternative technology that literally would decrease emissions from the plant, that the air quality management district would be well-suited to allowing these units to continue on.”
But critics have argued the supposedly modified gas offers little improvement compared to unmodified HF because the level of an additive meant to make it safer is so low that, in practical terms, it’s largely worthless. Moreover, the safety systems are largely untested, critics maintain.
HF Ban Proposed
The South Coast Air Quality Management District said earlier this month it wants to see any form of hydrofluoric acid banned, especially in the wake of a series of “mishaps” at the plant that has called into question PBF Energy’s ability to operate it safely.
Incidents cited by the AQMD included excessive flaring by the refinery on three occasions last year that sent thick black smoke billowing across the city, including one where municipal officials recommended residents shelter in place.
As a result, on Thursday PBF Energy agreed to an administrative order forcing it to improve power reliability, with the goal of reducing air pollution from flaring incidents.
Grid upgrades ordered
It’s the first time the AQMD has ever obtained an order requiring a refinery to upgrade its electrical infrastructure, officials said.
The improvements will include an underground power line that could take up to eight years to construct and will cost tens of millions of dollars.
However, the AQMD has set a series of deadlines for PBF to comply with its order, starting with a “public outreach and community relations plan” within 90 days and then implementation of the identified improvements within a year.
The Hearing Board set a Sept. 7 status hearing to review the refinery’s progress.
PBF officials have tried to deflect blame for the incidents, pointing fingers at Southern California Edison for “human error” that caused two of the three outages.
But the AQMD order makes clear the regulatory agency holds the refinery ultimately responsible for improving its electrical grid.
PBF officials told analysts the company will do exactly that to improve its financial performance, which CEO Thomas Nimbley called “unacceptable.”
“Avoiding lost profit events improve safety and environmental performance and directly impacts margins and costs,” he said.
But for many in the community, the mishaps cited by the AQMD began two years ago when the then ExxonMobil refinery exploded and nearly caused what federal officials have dubbed a near-catastrophic release of HF.
The force of the blast sent a 80,000-pound piece of equipment hurtling toward a tank containing 50,000 pounds of the potentially lethal chemical. If the chemical, which turns into a ground-hugging gas at room temperature had escaped, thousands could have died or suffered serious injury.
That chilling possibility has contributed to interest in the grass-roots protest and march planned for Saturday. It will begin at 10 a.m. at Columbia Park on 190th Street in Torrance and end with a rally in front of the refinery.
About 260 people have indicated on a Facebook event page publicizing the march that they may attend, despite a major storm expected to move into Southern California. Organizers say they plan to hold the 90-minute event rain or shine.
Indeed, the refinery’s history over the last two years have galvanized people who have never had a history of political activism.
Redondo Beach resident Laurel Ferris said via email that “residents are afraid and the time for soft-pedaling of these repeated dangerous incidents is past.”
“I am a mother of two who never knew a thing about the Torrance refinery until it exploded two years ago,” Ferris wrote. “The repeated flares and fires that continue to occur only make me more worried about the increasingly unstable safety situation. Its owner PBF has repeatedly turned a deaf ear to the community’s concerns and seems to be unwilling, or unable, to get a handle on the problems.
“As a result, I am in the process of moving my younger child to another school further away from the refinery since I experience anxiety every time I drop him off.”
Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, which is organizing the event, said it’s important for residents to keep the pressure on PBF, especially given the company’s hostility to the proposed HF ban.
“It’s very easy for the industry to squash efforts that are underway,” she said. “That’s why we want to have the rally to make a visible show of support for the ban.”