Torrance Refinery is one of only two refineries in the region that still use modified hydrofluoric acid.
LOS ANGELES, CA — The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Wednesday in support of a proposed ban on the use of modified hydrofluoric acid, prompted by safety concerns regarding a Torrance refinery.
Supervisor Janice Hahn recommended sending a letter to the Southern California Air Quality Management District asking them to expedite their rule- making process with regard to the potential ban, citing residents who “have lived in constant fear.”
Hahn also proposed writing legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown to back a package of safety measures sponsored by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Rolling Hills Estates.
“The safety record (at the refinery) is something to take pride in, but my feeling is, why risk something?” Hahn said.
A Feb. 18 fire at the Torrance Refining Company came on the two-year anniversary of an explosion and fire there that injured four people.
Hahn warned that a bigger disaster was narrowly avoided because heavy debris from that 2015 explosion just missed a tank of hydrofluoric acid.
“I think we got lucky,” Hahn said, later adding that when it comes to another accident, “I think the question is not if, but when.”
A refinery worker and single dad said he appreciated the concerns for worker safety but wanted to be sure he and others would be able to keep their jobs.
“We are at risk for shutting down if this is accelerated,” he said, referring to the ban.
The 155,000 barrel-per-day refinery, once owned by ExxonMobil, was sold to PBF Energy in July 2016. It is one of only two refineries in the region that still use modified hydrofluoric acid. The other is the Valero refinery in Wilmington.
Retooling the Torrance facility to use a substitute such as sulfuric acid would cost more than $100 million, according to a study commissioned by the SCAQMD.
The volume of sulfuric acid required would be much higher than the quantity of hydrofluoric acid or HF, with the study predicting 900-1,300 truck trips per month versus two to four trips per month for HF.
“There is an increased potential for an accident leading to an off-site spill,” the report by Norton Engineering concluded.
HF turns from a liquid to a gas very quickly and because it is denser than oxygen, becomes a fog that hugs the ground rather than dissipating into the atmosphere, Dr. Cyrus Rangan told the board. Rangan is an expert on toxicity with the Department of Public Health.
DPH Director Barbara Ferrer said the acid can irritate skin, eyes and throats, cause skin burns and pulmonary edema, which can be fatal.
Modified HF includes an additive aimed at preventing formation of a toxic cloud of vapor, but Ferrer said the additive does not change the chemical’s toxicity.
Residents, some of whom identified themselves as member of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, compared the danger to the devastating 1984 gas leak from a pesticide factory in Bhopal, India that killed at least 3,000 people.
Isabel Balboa said she lives “in the shadow of this ticking time bomb,” and urged the board to ban HF.
However, Donna Duperron of the Torrance Chamber of Commerce reminded the board that “the Torrance refinery has been an invaluable community partner for more than half a century” and a critical driver behind the local economy, paying millions in property and use taxes and providing 1,100 “good paying jobs.”
Duperron said she lives fewer than 150 yards from the refinery and volunteers as a block captain.
“I have never heard one neighbor say that they feared living next to the refinery, in 22 years,” Duperron said.
A refinery representative said both the 2015 and 2017 accidents were due to failures of the electrical system and that owner PBF Energy was working with Southern California Edison to upgrade electrical reliability on the site.
Jeffrey Dill of the Torrance Refining Company urged the board to allow the AQMD rule-making process to move forward without interference.
— City News Service, photo courtesy of the Torrance Refining Company