A federal judge ruled this week that communities have a right to know what chemicals are released by industrial accidents, the result of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups.

The ruling by Judge Amit Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday, Feb. 4, requires the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) to determine and disclose what air pollutants are accidentally emitted by any industry the board monitors.

Locally, the ruling could improve monitoring and reporting of chemical releases at oil refineries such as the Valero Wilmington Refinery and Torrance Refinery, which use the toxic modified hydrofluoric acid. A local citizen group has been pushing for the chemical’s prohibition after an explosion at the Torrance Refinery in 2015.

The lawsuit was filed in December 2017 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which argued the CSB should have been reporting chemical releases for many years. While the 1990 law that created the CSB required it, the national safety board has never adopted such a mandate in its nearly 30-year existence.

Daniel Horowitz, managing director of CSB from 2000 to 2018, advocated for greater public reporting of chemical accidents during his tenure, he said.

“The big problem for community groups right now is there is no reliable database of chemical accidents,” Horowitz said. “The hope is with a rule like this there will be a one-stop shop for community groups and first responders to find out about chemical releases — what chemicals, what quantities and their effects.”

In California, reporting requirements are more stringent than in many other states, making the job of finding out information a little easier, but not much, Horowitz said.

“You really need a lot of expertise to find out what accidents have happened,” he said. “There is often a lot of leg work required.”

AB 1647, a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi  (D-Torrance) and signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017, will require by 2020 fence-line and community air quality monitoring around oil refineries along with reporting of the readings from those devices in real-time.

The South Coast Air Quality Management Agency in 2017 directed $2.77 million to enhance the monitoring and alert systems at the Torrance Refinery. But there is still a lot the public is not aware of.

At the SCAQMD’s board meeting on Feb. 1, it was revealed for the first time publicly that 10 leaks of modified hydrogen fluoride or hydrofluoric acid (MHF) occurred since 2017 from the Torrance and Wilmington refineries. Those releases were detected using sensors on refinery property.

Four of the incidents involved the release of MHF at quantities greater than 10 parts per million (PPM). The lowest lethal dose for inhalation is estimated between 50 and 250 PPM for a five-minute exposure.

The 10 leaks in the past two years was news to Steve Goldsmith, co-founder of Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, who follows the issue closely. About three or four of the 10 disclosed by SCAQMD last week were reported in the media, he said.

“Increased monitoring and increased information about the monitoring is what we have been lacking in this battle for a long time,” Goldsmith said.

*Original article online at https://www.dailybreeze.com/2019/02/07/federal-judge-rules-public-has-right-to-know-about-chemical-accidents/