Fluoride Action Network

LA public health official urges phasing out MHF chemical at Torrance, Wilmington refineries

Source: The Daily Breeze | April 5th, 2019 | By Donna Littlejohn
Industry type: Oil Refineries

A Los Angeles County public health official has urged the region’s air-quality watchdog to take steps to phase out the use of a controversial chemical at refineries in Torrance and Wilmington.

The current healthcare infrastructure would not be able to adequately respond to injuries that could result from the release of a chemical known as modified hydrofluoric acid, or MHF, at the Torrance Refining Company and the Valero refinery, which is in Wilmington, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health concluded.

The agency sent a letter this week to the South Coast Air Quality Management District urging it to phase out the use of the material as soon as possible. Representatives of the refineries could not be reached for comment.

In the letter, sent on Tuesday, April 2, Angelo Bellomo, the county’s deputy director for health protection, expressed support for efforts to address possible health and safety hazards posed by the chemical at the two refineries.

The discussion over MHF has been ongoing, said Patrick Chandler, a spokesman for AQMD.

In the past, the oil industry has claimed that phasing out the chemical could shutter the only two refineries in the state using the acid, throw thousands out of work and jack up gas prices throughout the state.

Modified hydrofluoric acid is a chemical compound used in the oil refining process to help meet air quality standards that call for blended forms of gasoline. When released, the acid can create a low hanging, pervasive toxic aerosol cloud that does not dissipate, experts say. While contact with the vapor can be fatal, the likelihood of a leak and plume are low, expert say.

Regulators are considering whether to ban MHF and switch to sulfuric acid, a move that refinery operators say is unnecessary and expensive, costing up to hundreds of millions of dollars. They also contend that the existing system is safe.

In February 2015, an explosion at the Torrance refinery, owned at the time by ExxonMobil, almost caused a catastrophic release of the acid, which could have killed or injured tens of thousands, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the federal agency that has also probed the issue. Torrance Refining Company, a division of PBF Energy, now owns the Torrance refinery.

Since then, there have been numerous discussions and public meetings about the chemical.

“Despite all the misinformation about this issue, MHF (modified hydrofluoric acid) is safe and still the latest, most advanced, commercially proven (refining technology) available in the world today,” Gesuina Paras, spokeswoman for PBF Energy, was quoted as saying in an April 26, 2018, Daily Breeze article. “(The refineries) have been operating in the district for a combined 100 years without any HF or MHF offsite release from either refinery.”

An AQMD board Torrance subcommittee is expected to take more testimony in May or June, during a meeting at the Torrance Civic Center.

The Torrance and Wilmington refineries, Chandler said, are the only two in the state currently using MHF.

It is believed that a large-scale MHF release, Bellomo’s letter stated, “would have potentially catastrophic impacts on surrounding communities.”

The letter also noted the one “near-miss event” at the Torrance refinery, and a total of 10 MHF leaks at the Torrance and Valero refineries over the past two years.”

The letter further stated — after conducting extensive research, and receiving comments from refinery operators, the public and medical providers — the air-quality watchdog concluded that MHF exposure “would require immediate and specialized treatment.”

“Public Health has determined that in the event of a low-probability, high-consequence release of MHF,” the letter said, “the surrounding communities would incur severe health damage and casualties.”

With evacuation zones up to 10 miles from the refineries, the letter added, it would equate “to potentially millions of people at risk.”

Steven Goldsmith of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance said the letter is significant.

“Another expert is weighing in and it’s piling up,” he said. “The facts are very clear now.”

Bellomo’s letter states that other refineries have found a way to use “safer alternatives.”

“Continued transportation, storage and use of MHF at these refineries present a substantial and needless risk to surrounding communities,” Bellomo wrote, adding that her agency wants AQMD to move to “immediately require enhanced mitigation measures and implement a phase-out of MHF as soon as possible.”

Both refineries also are part of a regional air pollution monitoring effort by the state and AQMD.

The program mandates the installation of new real-time fence-line air-monitoring systems at the South Bay’s seven refineries, according to a Dec. 16, 2018, Daily Breeze article. Those systems will analyze pollutant concentrations that can be compared with air-quality standards and provide better — and easier-to-understand — information on the health effects of such pollutants.

That data will go up on websites, displayed “in a transparent, clear, understandable and contextual manner,” according to the draft plan for the Torrance refinery, written by its owner, Torrance Refining Company LLC, a subsidiary of PBF Energy.

“The Torrance Refinery’s goal,” the executive summary says, “is to provide the public with monitoring results in a manner that provides meaningful information to help understand the refinery’s contribution to air quality in nearby communities.

“This will provide useful information to nearby communities,” it continues, “especially the most sensitive community members, for understanding day-to-day air quality.”

*Original article online at https://www.dailybreeze.com/2019/04/05/la-public-health-urges-phasing-out-mhf-chemical-at-torrance-wilmington-refineries/