WILMINGTON, California — A 16-year effort to ban the use of a potentially deadly chemical at a local refinery ended this month when refinery officials agreed to switch to a less-toxic substance.
Neighbors had lobbied to halt use of the lung-searing chemical hydrogen fluoride at the Ultramar refinery, fearing an accidental release could result in a deadly cloud similar to one that killed thousands of people and injured thousands more in Bhopal, India, in 1984.
The refinery will phase out the use of hydrogen fluoride by 2005 under an agreement approved Friday by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Refinery officials plan to spend $30 million to revamp the Wilmington refinery to use a modified and less toxic form of the chemical.
The 16-year effort to ban the toxic chemical was slowed because hydrogen fluoride is not regulated in the same way as smog pollutants.
“It isn’t a compound that you can find national standards for,” said Jack Broadbent, director of the air division for the Southwest region of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a former deputy officer of the South Coast air district.
In the absence of regulations, the phase-out agreement came about as the result of pressure from neighbors and the air district, a change in refinery ownership and concerns about chemical plant safety following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Broadbent said.
Over the years, the effort was slowed by legal battles, and even a clerical error in 1991 that scuttled a proposed ban. A judge overturned a ban on the chemical after a photocopying error resulted in five missing pages in an environmental document.
Wilmington residents had lobbied hard for a ban in recent months, aided by Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental group that targets toxic issues.
Carol Piseno, who has an 11-year-old son, was one of many neighbors speaking out against the use of the chemical.
“That gas they were using could leak out. I didn’t want my son to get sick,” she said.
Piseno credits the efforts of neighbors for the new agreement.