The local pollution watchdog has for the first time proposed phasing out a potentially deadly chemical used in refineries in Torrance and Wilmington and dropped another option altogether that would have allowed the plants to keep using it by installing additional safety systems.
The new proposal was outlined in a online presentation released by the South Coast Air Quality Management District ahead of a Saturday meeting in Torrance where the risks associated with toxic hydrofluoric acid will be discussed by the agency’s Refinery Committee. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. at City Hall, 3031 Torrance Boulevard.
A Feb. 18, 2015, fire and explosion at the plant shook the city and almost caused what the U.S. Chemical Safety Board called a “near-miss” when a heavy piece of debris fell dangerously close to a huge tank containing hydrofluoric acid. The acid creates a toxic, ground-hugging gas at room temperature that could kill or injure thousands, experts say.
Hundreds of local residents, including refinery workers and members of grassroots group the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, which has spearheaded resident opposition to the use of the chemical, are expected to turn out to the meeting Saturday.
Gesuina Paras, spokeswoman for PBF Energy, said the company plans to make the case that phasing out the chemical and replacing it with sulfuric acid or another alternative technology would have potentially negative effects on the local oil industry.
The company has warned the cost of converting the refinery could be prohibitive and economically infeasible, raising the likelihood it could shut at a cost of hundreds of jobs. Critics have said those are just scare tactics considering the huge profits oil companies rake in and PBF is exaggerating the cost of converting to a different refining technology.
In turn, PBF accuses critics of distorting the issue.
“Despite all the misinformation about this issue, MHF (modified hydrofluoric acid) is safe and still the latest, most advanced, commercially proven (refining technology) available in the world today,” Paras said. “(The refineries) have been operating in the district for a combined 100 years without any HF or MHF offsite release from either refinery.”
Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, which has spearheaded the opposition to the continued use of HF, said the six to eight-year time frame for getting rid of hydrofluoric acid outlined in the second AQMD proposal was too long and doesn’t address safety issues quickly enough.
“We’ve already waited 30 years for new technology basically,” she said. “Now when it’s obvious MHF is a hoax they want to do another thing.
“It is not (the AQMD’s) right to subject the public to this high risk simply on a whim because they want to humor the refinery’s false claim the technology isn’t even ready,” Hayati added.
“This could be a turning point (in the debate),” said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood. “It looks like we’ve narrowed the options at this point.
No longer on the table: A “phase 3 mitigation” where the affected refineries would construct some sort of ‘fail-safe’ containment for potential modified hydrofluoric acid spills,” he added. “Neither the refineries nor the community group felt this was a realistic option, so we dropped it.”
That leaves two options for a new district rule that would phase out the acid in either five or six to eight years; the latter timeline includes looking into possible commercially available alternatives to hydrofluoric acid. Both options would also include adding new safety measures at the refineries.
If the committee decides to move forward with one of the options — and the possibility also exists the panel could do something else — the agency would initiate a formal rule-writing process that includes a lengthy environmental assessment needed to comply with state law, Atwood said. That process could take six months, a schedule that means the new rule would be adopted in December.
Atwood said Saturday’s meeting is “by no means” the final opportunity for residents to comment before the rule is adopted and more public discussions are anticipated.
The meeting will also include a presentation by UCLA professor Craig Merlic, executive director of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, on the health effects from exposure to hydrofluoric and sulfuric acids; the latter is the most commonly used alternative to HF.
Unlike sulfuric acid, which remains a liquid at room temperature, hydrofluoric acid turns into a gas; it has been described in academic journals as “one of the most hazardous compounds to human health,” that can prove fatal in very small quantities.
The acid used at both South Bay refineries includes an additive designed to inhibit the formation of a toxic cloud if released at room temperature.
However, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has publicly expressed doubts that the level of additive in the acid is sufficient to make what’s known as modified hydrofluoric acid much safer. The AQMD agrees, observing in its online presentation that modified hydrofluoric acid still forms a dense white vapor cloud upon release; it is no less toxic than pure hydrofluoric acid.