Valero Energy Corp. and PBF Energy Inc. refineries in the Los Angeles area could face stricter safety requirements when using hydrofluoric acid or be forced to eliminate its use altogether under a new rule local regulators are weighing.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is still weeks away from releasing a draft rule, but the latest iteration backs off banning the chemical outright as suggested in April 2017.

A final rule could be adopted as early as July 6, according to the air district that regulates stationary sources of air pollution in Southern California.

Three-tiered Approach

Prompted by public and worker safety concerns after a 2015 explosion, the three-tiered Rule 1410 that the air district is floating would require additional safety measures and equipment six to 12 months after adoption, according to a presentation by the air district.

State-of-the-art sensors, cameras, automated safety systems, and additional barriers at the plants would be required within two to three years, the presentation said. Eight years after the rule takes effect, the chemical would have to be stored in underground tanks, and the refineries’ alkylation units, where hydrofluoric acid is used, would need to be fully enclosed.

Cost for the first phase of the rule would run from $2.5 million to $6 million, according to a study the air district commissioned. The second tier of requirements would cost another $50 million to $100 million, and the final phase $50 million to $150 million.

The refineries could forgo those requirements altogether by switching to an alternative, like sulfuric acid. But the air district’s refinery committee wants a more developed proposal.

“Valero will continue to work with district staff,” company spokesman Lillian Riojas told Bloomberg Environment in a Jan. 23 email.

Explosion Triggered Concern

A 2015 explosion at the PBF Energy refinery in Torrance, then owned by Exxon Mobil, revived the air district’s decades-old effort to address the public health risks associated with hydrofluoric acid use.

A 40-ton piece of debris narrowly missed a tank holding thousands of pounds of the chemical, which federal investigators declared a “near miss” catastrophic accident.

The chemical has a low boiling point and, if accidentally released, can form a dense, ground-hugging toxic and potentially lethal cloud, which could have migrated to nearby heavily populated areas, according to the air district. Other exposure hazards include severe skin and deep tissue burns, harm to bone structure, damage to the respiratory system, and severe eye irritation.

Around 50 U.S. refineries use hydrofluoric acid or a modified form in their alkylation units to produce high-octane gasoline, according to a United Steelworkers report. The report further said that about 12,000 workers could be exposed to the chemical at 23 of those refineries, where the union is present.

PBF Energy’s Torrance refinery and the Valero refinery in Wilmington are the only two in California that use the chemical, but both use a chemical additive to modify hydrofluoric acid.

Other California refineries use less risky sulfuric acid or don’t have alkylation units.

Earlier Effort Suspended

Litigation suspended the air district’s first stab at forcing the two refineries to abandon hydrofluoric acid by 1998, but a settlement agreement prompted the switch to the modified form of the chemical.

Valero and PBF Energy continue to resist a rule requiring a switch to sulfuric acid or another alternative, which the companies’ studies estimate could cost $600 million to $900 million. They have suggested closing the refineries if forced to stop using modified hydrofluoric acid, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs.

Both refineries assure regulators they have adequate safety measures and systems.

The refinery committee has “heard and recognized the proven safety record on the use of MHF (modified hydrofluoric acid) and how vital these refineries are to the public,” Riojas from Valero said.

PBF Energy couldn’t be reached for comment by Bloomberg Environment.

Residents Want Ban

Local advocacy and community groups, however, want the chemical’s use phased out sooner than eight years.

“This most recent proposal is a response to pressure by industry,” according to Sally Hayati, a retired scientist and president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, a group of residents pressing the air district to ban the use of modified hydrofluoric acid.

An air district commissioned found that the modified form of the chemical “has not been proven safe,” Hayati told Bloomberg Environment. “We’re not going to roll over and accept anything.”

Community groups want short-term safety measures now, but won’t wait eight years for more mitigation, Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, told Bloomberg Environment.

“We want a ban,” Marquez said. “We have research showing the refineries can transition in three to five years and for much less than they say.”

*Original article online at

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