An investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has uncovered more safety and operational deficiencies at the Torrance refinery, including a “superficial” management structure and broken equipment designed to help contain any accidental release of toxic hydrofluoric acid that remained unfixed for “weeks.”
• DOCUMENT: Read the EPA report just made public
In addition, the EPA probe found that not only were critical safety systems untested, but the plant’s required risk management plan understated the danger to the community from a fire or chemical release because of several errors and inaccuracies.
The report was made public Tuesday, just hours before a Torrance City Council meeting where panelists were scheduled to debate whether to support a resolution written by Councilman Tim Goodrich that seeks to phase out the use of the acid at the refinery.
The refinery supposedly uses a modified form of the acid to make it safer, but industry critics and local activists have questioned whether it really is.
Goodrich called the EPA report “damning.”
“The revelations detailed in the EPA report underscore how dangerous modified hydrofluoric acid is, which is why we need a transition to a safer alternative,” he said.
The AQMD, the region’s pollution watchdog, is scheduled to hold an all-day meeting Saturday at the Torrance Marriott to discuss several issues surrounding the refinery, including repeated electrical outages and equipment breakdowns that led to excessive flaring and increased pollution.
In addition, since PBF Energy took over the refinery from ExxonMobil last year, the plant has experienced a series of incidents including at least two fires.
97 incidents since July 2016
Torrance Fire Department Assistant Chief Steve Treskes said last week that since PBF assumed control of the refinery last July 1, firefighters have received reports of 97 incidents there and responded to about 30 of them.
Firefighters responded to yet another equipment breakdown Tuesday caused by a power disruption that required an engine response and an unplanned flaring notification. A similar incident occurred last week, Treskes said.
The department also has issued two violation notices to PBF since Jan. 1. One was issued for a nuisance odor, the other for failing to provide timely notifications of an incident as required, Treskes said.
Community on edge
The continuing series of incidents has set the community on edge and increased calls for a ban on HF to a level not seen since the early 1990s.
Goodrich said early Tuesday he had received about 300 emails ahead of the 7 p.m. meeting, with two-thirds of them calling for phasing out HF.
The AQMD in the 1990s did actually enact a ban on HF, used in a refinery’s alkylation unit to manufacture high-octane grades of gasoline, but it was overturned in the wake of a legal challenge by an oil company.
The EPA report is sure to add to the community perception that PBF, which operates the refinery under a subsidiary called the Torrance Refining Co., appears just as incapable of running the plant reliably and safely as ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil was fined more than $500,000 by the state for deliberately failing to repair equipment the company knew could cause a life-threatening explosion such as the one that occurred in February 2015.
That knocked the refinery offline for months, sending pump prices soaring and almost causing a catastrophic release of HF, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which also is probing the refinery’s safety and operational record.
Covers issues cited before
The seven-page EPA report, based on a November plant inspection, appears to cover some of the same issues uncovered in previous inspections, including the revelation that critical HF safety systems were not repaired.
“In some instances, safeguards such as fire water monitor systems, safety shower alarms and cameras were identified in handover logs as not working during HF unloading,” the EPA report said.
“TRC did not correct deficiencies in equipment that were identified as being outside of an acceptable operating range in a safe and timely manner,” the report concluded. “Safety systems and equipment within the alkylation unit were identified as being non-operational on a recurring basis. Some were not fixed for multiple weeks, even those identified as safeguards.”
Jeffrey Dill, who heads PBF’s West Coast operations, said company officials were reviewing the EPA findings and intended to comply with the agency’s request for more information.
“We are committed to operating in compliance with all laws and requirements applicable to the refinery,” Dill said.
The company is required to respond to the inspection findings by April 27, 30 days after the report was issued.
Activists feel vindicated
Significantly, the findings appear to corroborate independent research conducted by the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, a group seeking an HF phase-out at refineries in Torrance and Wilmington. Those are the only two in the state that do not use a safer alternative to HF, which forms a potentially lethal toxic cloud when released into the air.
TRAA has warned that the emergency system intended to contain HF is not as efficient as PBF claims.
The EPA report said the system requires human and mechanical means to function and is not automated as PBF claims, meaning it is more vulnerable to being compromised in an emergency.
In addition, errors in calculations that under-estimated just how much HF gas could be released showed that any resulting disaster could be larger in scope than reflected in the risk-management plan, the EPA found.
As such, the EPA concluded, there was “no clear basis” for an estimate that a worst-case disaster would cause a toxic plume 3.2 miles long.
TRAA reached basically the same conclusions and was widely criticized for them, group President Sally Hayati said.
Now the group feels vindicated that a regulatory agency has essentially agreed that the safety claims PBF is making are “extravagant” and largely without scientific basis, she said.
“The facts pointing this out are clear— it’s just that no one has taken the time to look at them,” Hayati said. “None of our regulators, none of our politicians have taken the time to verify these wild safety claims made by the refinery and now, finally, due to community pressure, they’re responding.”
Other EPA findings included:
• That HF handling procedures were not fully implemented, including when four deliveries of acid were unloaded last year at the refinery.
• That it was unclear which operators were assigned responsibility for an emergency shutdown of the plant if deemed necessary.
• That risk-management program oversight was insufficient to provide adequate oversight and implementation of the system.
• That instrumentation, piping and valve configurations were inadequately identified, potentially compromising safety.
Updated September 6, 2017