The regional regulatory agency overseeing the oil industry will hold a public meeting Saturday in Torrance to discuss potential alternatives to the use of potentially deadly hydrofluoric acid in two South Bay refineries, the only ones in the state that use the chemical.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District town hall meeting begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at Torrance City Hall, 3031 Torrance Blvd.
The meeting comes in the wake of the release last month of a report commissioned by the agency that concluded replacing the use of the acid with another commercial process used to refine gasoline at the refineries in Torrance and Wilmington was unprecedented and expensive.
“What does that do to the price of gasoline in the plants’ market area?” said Neal Langerman, a San Diego-based chemical safety consultant with extensive experience in the oil refining industry.
“That question needs to be answered,” he said. “If it jacks up the price of gasoline 50 cents a gallon, it’s dead on arrival.”
Conversion Cost a Concern
Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, which wants to see HF banned, conceded that Torrance refinery owner PBF Energy has said it would rather shut down the refinery than spend tens of millions to convert to another refining process.
Nevertheless, TRAA is continuing to push for a HF ban because of its danger.
HF forms a toxic cloud-hugging vapor at room temperature with the potential for killing or injuring thousands in a catastrophic release of the chemical.
Federal regulators said that almost happened in February 2015 when an enormous blast hit the Torrance refinery and knocked it offline, sending pump prices soaring.
It was sheer luck the release did not occur, officials with the agency said.
A modified form of HF with an additive that supposedly makes it safer is in use at both refineries, but experts like Langerman have publicly said that is not the case.
Despite that, AQMD officials — as well as municipal officials as recently as last Tuesday — have publicly insisted the modification causes “most of the acid to fall to the ground as an easily controlled liquid and reduces the potential for off-site consequences of an accidental HF release.”
That statement comes from an AQMD environmental analysis when the agency had the Wilmington plant convert from pure HF to the modified form about a decade ago.
But experts say the government officials are misinformed.
Scientific Research Suggests Risks
There is no scientific evidence — and the most recent AQMD study even conceded that’s the case — that the low level of additive in use in the South Bay means the gaseous acid would harmlessly “rain-out” as its known in the industry, Langerman said.
Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency is believed to be investigating that claim as part of its review of the refinery’s mandated risk management plan, which critics contend understates the risk of using hydrofluoric acid to the community.
Using a higher level of additive is believed to be safer, but it cannot be used because it interferes with the oil refining process.
Torrance municipal officials allowed the use of the lower level of additive in the 1990s when concern over HF first became a community concern. But the public was never informed of the reduced additive level or the increased risk to the community that resulted until recently.
Replacing HF with sulfuric acid is considered the most viable commercial alternative, but much more of it is needed, increasing production costs if it is trucked in.
And transportation of hazardous material is “the highest risk aspect of handling any chemical,” Langerman said.
Hayati said AQMD officials have told her a pipeline from Carson to the refinery could eliminate that transportation risk, but it’s unknown what condition the pipeline is in or whether it would need any expensive retrofitting for a substance like sulfuric acid.