Nearly 300 residents march inprotest to the PBF Energy refinery in Torrance on Saturdday, Feb 17, 2018. It has been three years since the refinery explosion rocked the neighborhod and now residents are calling for a ban on the use of hydrofluoric acid at the refinery. (Photo by Scott Varley, Contributor)
The Redondo Beach City Council has unanimously voted to endorse the phase-out of a toxic chemical at the Torrance refinery, saying it is a public safety issue that needs to be addressed.
“It’s not safe if something goes terribly wrong,” said Mayor Bill Brand, who worked in the oil industry as a process engineer, designed refinery units and once worked at the Torrance plant. “If something goes wrong and we didn’t take action, we’re absolutely responsible.”
Tuesday’s vote followed the lead of the county Board of Supervisors, which last year took similar action.
Elected officials in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach also are scheduled to address the issue before month’s end, and are expected to take similar positions. Hermosa Beach City Council members will discuss the issue next week, while their counterparts in Manhattan Beach will do so March 20.
Like Redondo Beach, the cities are each expected to send a letter to the South Coast Air Quality Management District explaining their positions The timing is important because the AQMD, which has spent much of the last year or so contemplating a phase-out of HF, is getting closer to making a decision in the next few months.
“I would be shocked if they did not also vote to support a ban,” said Manhattan Beach resident Gerry O’Connor, who has closely followed the issue in all three beach cities.
That leaves Torrance isolated in simply calling for improvements to refinery safety without endorsing a phase-out of hydrofluoric acid, which can form a deadly toxic cloud at room temperature that could kill or injure tens of thousands. Councilman Tim Goodrich blasted Torrance’s stance as “milquetoast ” and later came out along with Councilman Kurt Weideman in breaking with the rest of the panel to endorse an HF phase-out over several years.
That’s what’s being contemplated by the AQMD, although staff at the agency also has said that could take eight years, a timeline local activists have said is too long. But agency staff also suggested earlier this year it could also request the two local refineries using HF spend millions on safety improvements instead of an outright ban and phase-out.
Two Redondo Beach council members, John Gran and Laura Emdee, initially suggested following Torrance’s lead and the pair introduced a motion to that effect. None of their council colleagues was interested in that more circumspect approach also endorsed by refinery owner PBF Energy. A substitute motion was offered and the two quickly abandoned their position despite making long passionate speeches in a bid to sway fellow panelists.
The Torrance refinery and the Valero refinery in Wilmington are the only two in the entire state that use hydrofluoric acid, although in a supposedly modified form that oil industry officials contend is safer than acid without an additive that suppresses cloud formation in the event of a release. Activists and government agencies that regulate the industry have repeatedly noted there is scant evidence to back up those claims.
The federal Chemical Safety Board has said the February 2015 explosion at the Torrance refinery almost caused a catastrophic release of the acid.
Since then the refinery has had repeated safety and environmental issues that have led to millions of dollars in fines. Just last week the state ordered PBF to remove tens of thousands of gallons of toxic waste stored at the refinery for decades.
Meanwhile, PBF has resorted to attacking critics as “misinformed,” a strategy it repeated in a letter to the Redondo Beach City Council. But there was widespread support for the action taken.
O’Connor noted that of 21 residents who spoke Tuesday, all favored a phase-out of HF and eventual ban. In contrast, of the 18 people who spoke against a phase-out, all are on the PBF payroll, he said.
PBF argues that the cost of converting the plant to a different technology would be prohibitive and it would respond by shutting it down, throwing hundreds of people out of work.
But Redondo Beach officials expressed skepticism over that claim, saying the current technology used at the plant is out of date and inappropriate for plants in densely populated urban areas.
“Any oil refinery is basically a bomb waiting to blow up,” Brand said. “If you were building an alkylation unit in this area from scratch, you wouldn’t use HF.”