Southern California’s air quality watchdog has become the latest regulatory agency to cast doubt on the safety of a potentially deadly chemical used at the Torrance refinery, concluding there is not enough evidence to dismiss concerns that a toxic cloud could form and kill or injure tens of thousands.
South Coast Air Quality Management District staff members came to what they described as an “initial conclusion” while reviewing data provided by refinery owner PBF Energy via its subsidiary, the Torrance Refining Co.
The agency is exploring whether to create a rule that would phase out the use of hydrofluoric acid, especially in the massive quantities used in Torrance.
A modified form of the acid is used in Torrance and at Valero’s Wilmington refinery, the only two in the state that use hydrofluoric acid.
The MHF is supposed to inhibit the formation of the cloud; critics have questioned whether that would actually occur.
Meanwhile, the AQMD also questioned whether existing safety measures are sufficient to prevent a catastrophic HF release of the sort federal officials said almost occurred in February 2015, when a massive explosion ripped through the plant then owned by ExxonMobil.
“Staff’s initial conclusion is that the testing/modeling information provided by Torrance Refining Company did not sufficiently demonstrate MHF would not flash atomize and form dense HF cloud,” reads a report posted on the agency’s website earlier this month.
“Even existing mitigations do not guarantee adequate protection in (an) unplanned event such as a major accident or earthquake causing equipment failure,” the report added.
A full report is scheduled to be presented today at the fifth meeting of a working group in Diamond Bar that is looking at the new rule.
The AQMD indicated that preliminary language on the new rule and a staff report would be prepared ahead of a September working group meeting.
This is the first time the AQMD has sided with such agencies as the federal Chemical Safety Board and Environmental Protection Agency that also have cast doubt on the safety of MHF and the effectiveness of safety systems meant to protect the community.
But the report was met with a swift response by PBF Energy, which fired off a letter saying it is “very disappointed and concerned” with the “premature” conclusion.
The letter from the refinery owner pointed out that the AQMD came to the opposite conclusion regarding MHF when it announced in 2003 the Valero refinery would switch to the modified chemical from the purer form to cut the risk of a major disaster.
“This premature position is hard to reconcile with the voluminous MHF testing results, technical analysis and modeling data provided to the district to date,” its response letter reads in part. “Accordingly, it defies science and technology that the district would change its position, especially since Torrance Refining Company is still in the process of providing the district with requested information related to testing data specific to Torrance refinery’s MHF alkylation unit operating conditions.”
The company urged the AQMD “not to rush this rule making.”
The company has furiously lobbied against any phaseout of MHF, saying it could cost $900 million to convert the refinery to use a safer chemical or different refining process.
It cited an economic study in its letter to the AQMD that said if the two Southern California refineries were forced to get rid of HF, they would likely close, increasing pump prices by 25 cents per gallon.
“It’s really an outcome I don’t think anyone believes is in the best interests of anyone in Southern California,” Jeffrey Dill, head of PBF’s West Coast operations, told investors July 30. “It’s really just not a feasible path to follow at this point.”
Not surprisingly, however, local activists pushing for the AQMD to phase out MHF in Torrance were “supportive of and grateful” of the release of the staff’s initial conclusion.
“The SCAQMD’s staff position, far from being premature, is in fact long overdue,” wrote Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance in a letter the group is sending to the AQMD.
“MHF claims cannot stand the light of day, which is why the industry fights so hard to keep even publicly revealed ‘trade secrets’ like the additive type, officially out of bounds,” she wrote. “If the industry had solid proof MHF were safe, they would rush to publish it online for the world to see, not having anything to lose.
“MHF was a failed research and development effort, but as a public relations tool, it was priceless,” she added.
The AQMD report comes against the backdrop of a federal court hearing on a Department of Justice petition to enforce subpoenas issued by the CSB to ExxonMobil in an effort to force the company to provide data confirming the safety of MHF.
On Thursday, the judge presiding in the case pushed back oral arguments originally set for a downtown courtroom later this week until Oct. 17.
*Original article and photo online at http://www.dailybreeze.com/general-news/20170822/aqmd-not-enough-data-to-prove-safety-of-deadly-toxic-chemical-used-at-torrance-refinery