Supervisor Hahn condemns the move; refinery officials applaud the decision.
The region’s air-quality watchdog voted Friday to accept an unsolicited offer of increased safety enhancements at the two South Bay refineries that use modified hydrofluoric acid, saying that doing so would be the most “expeditious” method of implementing them.
That brings an abrupt end to the lengthy and highly technical public debate over a potential South Coast Air Quality Management District rule to phase out use of the toxic chemical at the Torrance and Wilmington refineries.
The two refineries had fought any proposal to get rid of modified hydrofluoric acid, primarily because of the cost involved in switching to a different technology.
Torrance Refinery owner PBF Energy spokeswoman Betsy Brien said the board’s decision will “further provide safeguards” to the refinery’s safety systems.
“These enhancements will provide another layer of protection for our employees, contractors and neighbors,” she said via email after the meeting.
South Bay Supervisor Janice Hahn, who represents the Harbor Area, protested that the agency was abandoning an established process in favor of one that offered “no accountability” regarding the new safety measures.
A “near-miss” that almost caused a release of the chemical during a 2015 explosion at the Torrance refinery, then owned by Exxon Mobil, had prompted regulatory agencies to look for safer alternative technologies. But they are not yet considered to be commercially viable.
“We need to phase it out,” said chairman Dr. William Burke, summing up the prevailing view of the board, “but now is not the time.”
Many experts say hydrofluoric acid can form a deadly ground-hugging gas cloud at room temperature and fear the impact a major accidental release could have on a densely populated area.
Refinery officials say an additive modifying the chemical — intended to inhibit the formation of such a cloud — and other added safety measures significantly reduce the chance of an accidental release. Critics have argued the level is too low to sufficiently increase safety, especially since it doesn’t reduce the toxicity of the gas cloud.
“We’re talking about a deadly flesh-eating vapor cloud that could affect 1 million people,” Hahn said. “Throwing out the process we’ve been working on really disappoints me.”
“It’s a sad excuse,” she added, “for the agreement I thought we were working toward.”
But other board members said the agency has remedies available if the refineries fail to live up to their offer, including imposing a rule to phase it out.
Rolling Hills Estates Councilwoman Judy Mitchell said technology — and public sentiment — will bypass hydrofluoric acid soon anyway.
“There’s a movement in this nation and across the world to phase out MHF,” she said. “Technology, as you know, can move very fast, and there’s political will now to move away from MHF.”