The county Board of Supervisors, prodded by increasing political and regulatory efforts to protect public health and safety, endorsed proposals Wednesday to ban highly toxic hydrofluoric acid from the two South Bay refineries that use the chemical.
That has prompted the South Coast Air Quality Management District to propose banning the chemical by year’s end. In addition, Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, has introduced a package of bills to improve refinery safety, including one that is intended to ban HF.
County Supervisor Janice Hahn of San Pedro introduced a resolution supporting both efforts that was unanimously backed by the board.
“I don’t think we can depend on that past safety record to guarantee our the continued safety of such a volatile and dangerous chemical,” Hahn said. “Public opinion is now pushing all of us to look at banning this substance from our refineries. I think the question is not if, but when.
“If would be better if that chemical were not on those premises,” Hahn added. “You cannot prepare for an earthquake. You cannot prepare for a plane crash (into the refinery). You cannot prepare for an explosion like the one that occurred two years ago. Why go forward and risk something as long as that chemical is on the premises? Can’t that refinery work better and more efficiently with something that doesn’t put the community at risk?”
There was virtually no board discussion before the vote.
PBF Energy released a statement saying the company was “disappointed” that the Board of Supervisors “prematurely drew conclusions” before the AQMD had completed its information-gathering process before it proposes any new rule, such as a ban on HF.
The company said the board motion passed “without adequate review of important information.”
“We respect community concerns about the use of MHF and we continue to address the issue with the public and officials,” said the statement. “Unfortunately, misinformation is being circulated throughout the community that is reflected in the motion the Board of Supervisors passed, which is misleading as to the refinery’s use of MHF.”
Most refineries use sulfuric acid in the refining process; the refineries in Torrance and Wilmington are the only ones in California using hydrofluoric acid. The plants use a modified version that is supposedly safer, but industry experts and activists have said that, in reality, it is little safer than unmodified HF.
“It’s only a matter of time before we have a deadly accident,” Torrance native Margie Wong told the board. “I feel like I’m living next to a weapon of mass destruction.”
Torrance Council Acts
The action Wednesday was similar to one taken the night before at the Torrance City Council meeting, although there was considerably more debate among panelists.
The panel unanimously decided to back the twin efforts to improve refinery safety generally, but stopped short of endorsing Muratsuchi’s bills or supporting an outright HF ban.
However, the council also passed a second motion that sends a proposed resolution to staff for review that would back the phasing out of HF in favor of a safer alternative. That’s expected to come back for council review at the panel’s next meeting on March 28, along with an alternate motion.
“The time has come that the city of Torrance takes an official position on these items and weighs in,” said Councilman Tim Goodrich, who proposed the resolution. “It’s time for us to use this agenda item as an opportunity to provide feedback to the AQMD and our representatives.”
That was passed on a 6-1 vote; Councilman Mike Griffiths dissented, saying he had insufficient information to make a decision.
Councilman Geoff Rizzo said taxpayers need to step up and subsidize the refinery’s expensive conversion to an alternative refining process to ensure the cost doesn’t prompt its closure or a loss of jobs.
Reaction to Move
Activists were cautiously optimistic about the moves they had long sought.
“Seeing the board (of supervisors) unanimously vote to support Assemblyman Muratsuchi’s refinery plan and AQMD’s work on an HF ban was incredibly encouraging,” said Catherine Leys, co-founder of South Bay Families Lobbying Against Refinery Exposures. “We feel that data and recommendations provided by our regulators and experts were weighed and the board’s decision was clear.”
Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, which has lobbied for an HF ban, said the group was “elated” at the action and the “powerful support” it represents.
“We need all the support we can get to counter industry influence and pushback,” she said via email. “We hope this vote convinces the city of Torrance to stand up for public safety and come out in favor of a MHF ban. The city could play a powerful role by informing the entire South Bay about MHF dangers, uniting with surrounding cities to oppose MHF, and lobbying with the Legislature and AQMD for a ban by Jan. 1, 2020.”
Muratsuchi’s package of bills includes provisions to require refineries to install air monitoring systems, increase the number of refinery inspectors and create a statewide task force on refinery safety as well as ban HF.
Note: This version corrects the name of the councilman who cast the dissenting vote.