Banning highly toxic hydrofluoric acid from the Torrance refinery is the focus of City Council discussion Tuesday at the first of two public meetings scheduled within a week to tackle environmental and safety issues at the problem-plagued plant.
An overflow crowd is expected to listen and participate in a lengthy discussion that begins at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 3031 Torrance Blvd., and is likely to go late into the evening.
The second public meeting is expected to be an all-day session from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Torrance Marriott, 3635 Fashion Way. That’s being hosted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has proposed adopting a new rule by year’s end calling for a phase-out of HF. Only two refineries in the state use HF and both are in the South Bay.
From the perspective of Councilman Tim Goodrich, who proposed the symbolic City Council resolution backing an HF ban, the timing of the two meetings couldn’t be better. He’s hoping a united council sends a message to the AQMD ahead of its Torrance meeting.
“I see this as relaying our concern to the regulatory agencies that are in charge, so when they evaluate (the new rule) they can take that into account,” Goodrich said.
So an alternative resolution was prepared that refers obliquely to the “operational challenges” the refinery has faced since the February 2015 explosion that crippled its ability to refine gasoline and led to soaring pump prices.
It merely “encourages all interested parties to continue to work together in addressing community concerns regarding the safety of the Torrance refinery.”
In contrast, Goodrich’s resolution uses more blunt language, including a reference to the “near-miss” in the blast that almost caused a catastrophic release of the acid that could have killed or injured thousands.
It also mentions the reduction of an additive intended to inhibit the formation of a dangerous vapor cloud the acid forms if accidentally released into the atmosphere. City officials years ago signed off on a court order behind closed doors allowing the percentage of additive to be reduced, but never informed the community of the increased risks residents face as a result.
“I favor the one I introduced because it actually takes a stance on opposing the continued use of hydrofluoric acid,” Goodrich said.
“Some people are saying we have a choice of sticking with modified hydrofluoric acid or the (refinery) jobs will go away,” he added. “I find that to be a false argument. I believe that with a responsible transition we can have a safer chemical and keep the jobs — that’s my goal.”
Goodrich said he and Councilman Kurt Weideman, who has publicly endorsed his colleague’s proposed resolution, have received dozens of emails in support.
Activists, too, see the council meeting as a chance to pressure a mostly recalcitrant panel to take a stronger stand.
They have mobilized en masse and were scheduled to canvass north Torrance neighborhoods this weekend, handing out fliers informing residents of both meetings.
In response, taking a leaf from the playbook of former refinery owner ExxonMobil, PBF had its workers submit virtually identical form letters requesting the council hold off on taking any action.
“I ask you to allow the South Coast rule-making process to take its normal course of action and not predetermine the outcome by imposing a ban or phasing out modified hydrofluoric acid,” the emails read.
By late Friday, nearly 20 emails containing the identical phrase were included in the council agenda packet; municipal officials said they were continuing to receive emails and would be adding them to the agenda item ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.
As Goodrich indicated, refinery workers fear the loss of hundreds of jobs if HF were banned.
“There is no chemical right now to replace HF,” wrote Donna Bender, a 28-year employee in the plant’s HF unit. “The technology just is not there yet.”
Industry experts say that is not entirely accurate because liquid sulfuric acid could be used, while an alternative technology that uses neither acid also is being pursued.
Refinery workers contend opponents are “using scare tactics” and that the risk of an accidental release is “greatly exaggerated.”
But north Torrance resident Bill Daley, a retired Beverly Hills fire chief who responded to two major incidents at the refinery during his 30-year career, said the evidence was “overwhelming” that the acid poses a danger to the public.
“In 1989, the city of Torrance’s own public nuisance lawsuit claimed that 100,000 persons could be killed and double that injured should there be a HF release in our community,” Daley wrote to the council.
“The danger is still the same today as what the city of Torrance claimed 27 years ago! The mitigation barriers that the industry touts (as) adequate measures of protection are not in the least bit adequate.”