U.S. Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) on Thursday announced a proposal that would require oil refineries nationwide, including four in Los Angeles County, to phase out the use of acutely hazardous hydrofluoric acid if a federal study finds a safer alternative.
“Hydrofluoric acid is dangerous business, and I am deeply concerned by the deadly threat it may pose,” Levine said in a prepared statement. “There are urban refineries all over the country that use it. . . . The EPA must step in.”
Betsy Ford, an aide to Levine, said the congressman will seek to have his proposal added to the Clean Air Act as an amendment. The proposed amendment calls for a one-year study by the Environmental Protection Agency that would compare the chronic low-level risks posed by emissions from increased production at sulfuric acid plants and the less probable but catastrophic risks associated with hydrofluoric acid.
If the study concludes there is a safer alternative, refineries would be required to convert to it within eight years. About half the nation’s refineries use hydrofluoric acid to boost the octane of unleaded gasoline, with the rest using sulfuric acid.
The process requires between 100 and 200 times as much sulfuric acid as hydrofluoric acid and would lead to increased emissions of sulfur oxides, which cause respiratory irritation.
On the other hand, hydrofluoric acid vaporizes at room temperature and can form a dense, ground-hugging cloud during an accidental release. Tests sponsored by the oil industry in 1986 showed that a 1,000-gallon, two-minute release of hydrofluoric acid will form a cloud that could be fatal up to five miles downwind. Sulfuric acid does not vaporize until it reaches a temperature of 518 degrees Fahrenheit and poses a greatly reduced risk of forming a lethal cloud.
“We have a real problem on our hands,” Levine said.
” . . . The good news is that there is an alternative that won’t form a deadly cloud like hydrofluoric acid. The EPA now needs to insure that alternative won’t contribute to L.A.’s long-term chronic air pollution crisis or its hazardous waste problem.”
The proposed amendment also directs the EPA to study mitigation measures in industries where no substitute is available for hydrofluoric acid. One possibility would be relocation to a less populated area.
Allied-Signal Inc. uses hydrofluoric acid at its El Segundo refrigerant manufacturing plant, and the company says there is no substitute. The Los Angeles-area oil refineries using hydrofluoric acid are the Mobil Oil Corp. plant in Torrance, Ultramar in Wilmington, and Powerine and Golden West, both in Santa Fe Springs.
The continued use of hydrofluoric acid has been hotly debated in Los Angeles. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is scheduled to vote April 6 on a staff recommendation to phase out the acid and require refineries to convert to sulfuric acid.
In Torrance, a ballot measure that would have imposed a ban was defeated March 6 after Mobil, which has the largest hydrofluoric acid unit on the West Coast, spent almost $700,000 in a campaign against the measure.
Ed Camarena, AQMD deputy executive director, said the Levine amendment was “a step in the right direction” and that conversion to sulfuric acid in the Los Angeles area would not violate federal or state air quality standards.
“We have a very good situation with respect to sulfur oxides,” he said.
Ford, Levine’s aide, said that the congressman does not feel that the AQMD should wait until the EPA study is complete. “If the AQMD wants to go ahead and deal with it right now, they should,” she said. “We would welcome that.”
Mobil spokesman Barry Engelberg said the company would not comment on Levine’s proposed amendment “without having seen the exact language.”
Mayor Katy Geissert, who supports phasing out hydrofluoric acid at Mobil, said: “This is very good news and lends strength to the city’s position and the AQMD’s position . . . and certainly will strengthen any state legislation.”
Assemblyman Curtis Tucker Jr. (D-Inglewood) recently introduced legislation to ban the use of hydrofluoric acid in populated areas.