In an abrupt conclusion to an issue covered in detail in multiple stories by, the governing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) voted 8-3 on Sept. 6 — with L.A. County Supervisor Janich Hahn strongly dissenting (AUDIO below) to approve a proffer by the Valero Wilmington and Torrance (ToRC) refineries to implement what the refineries describe as voluntary enhanced safety measures while continuing to use Modified Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF), a highly corrosive chemical that if released in sufficient quantity in an uncontrolled catastrophic event (such as earthquake/explosion or other scenarios) could cause mass casualties including permanent health damages and deaths.

The Valero-Wilmington refinery — relatively close to the Port of Long Beach, downtown Long Beach and several LB neighborhoods — and the Torrance (ToRC) refinery are the only two refineries in CA that use MHF. They are also the only two refineries in the United States using MHF in proximity to densely populated areas.

The refineries explicitly conditioned their proffer on AQMD halting its more than two-year proceeding into a mandatory rule phasing out/banning the refineries’ continued use of MHF or a Memorandum of Understanding (previously accepted in principle by the refineries), an enforceable contract to be negotiated between the refineries and AQMD that would more tightly regulate use of MHF. The two refineries’ proffers were contained in letters attached to an AQMD Governing Board agenda item that became visible online either during or days after the Labor Day holiday. The two letters, dated August 30, were addressed to AQMD Boardmember Larry McCallon (Mayor of Highland/Riverside County) who has consistently opposed phasing out MHF. To view the refineries’ proffer letters, click here, scroll to pages 11-19.)

L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn stood nearly alone in dissent, accompanied only by Rolling Hills Estates Mayor Judith Mitchell and South Pasadena Mayor Michael Cacciotti. To hear Supervisor Hahn’s dissent (including an exchange with Boardmember McCallon), click here. (“whoosh” sound in audio clip indicates edit.)

Over the past two years, multiple area elected officials, including the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, Congressmembers Ted Lieu, Nanette Barragan and Maxine Waters, the office of CA Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Assemblyman Al Maratsuchi and the City Councils of Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach — urged a phase out of MHF.

On September 3, 2019, the L.A. County Health Dept. (via its Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis MD/MPH) sent all the AQMD Boardmembers a letter calling MHF stored at the two refineries “unacceptable health and safety hazards,” strongly recommended a phase out of MHF…and added: “In the absence of such regulation, local refineries will continue to jeopardize the health and safety of workers and residents.”

The AQMD Board majority’s vote effectively ends the phase-out rulemaking process it began after a Feb. 18, 2015 explosion at the then-Exxon-Mobil (now ToRC Torrance) refinery launched an 80,000 pound piece of metal which landed roughly a few feet from a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of Modified Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF.)

For more than two years, the City of Long Beach — L.A. County’s second largest city whose Port, downtown and multiple neighborhoods are relatively close to the Valero Wilmington refinery — avoided taking a position on the issue. No policy-setting Long Beach Councilmember(s) agendized an item to discuss the public safety matter at the full Council or in any Council committee or pressed for a policy-setting vote on the issue. No Long Beach civic or neighborhood groups took positions on the matter…with the exception of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce (whose board of directors includes a representative of the Valero-Wilmington refinery and supported the refineries’ position.)

In December 2018, LB Mayor Robert Garcia (who has no policy setting vote but frequently advocates positions on citywide issues) declined to meet personally with representatives of the well-organized Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, who’d previously presented thousands of petition signatures of southbay residents advocating a phase-out ban, and through a subsequent Mayoral office aide, Garcia declined to join in a letter urging a phase-out/ban on MHF. But on June 20, 2019 — two days before a June 22 AQMD Committee refinery committee meeting on the issue — Garcia quietly sent a low-visibility letter (without a press release or representative present to speak at the Committee meeting) stating that he supports phase-out ban on MHF.

“I join California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in supporting SCAQMD’s efforts to protect the health and safety of residents by implementing a phase-out of Modified Hydrogen Fluoride (MHF) in local refineries,” Garcia wrote, saying “it is critical that this phase out happens immediately. All but two refineries in California have found economically viable and safer alternatives to use in their production methods. The only refineries that continue to use MHF are located here in Los Angeles County and are in close proximity to residents of Long Beach, Los Angeles and many South Bay cities. The safety and welfare of our residents is of utmost importance and should be a prime consideration. Other refineries show that it is technologically and economically feasible to use safer alternatives, therefore the continued transportation, storage and use of MHF cannot be justified given the significant safety risks posed to the surrounding communities. I urge SCAQMD to take steps that ensures that proposed Rule 1410 addresses our concerns and begins the phase-out process of MHF immediately.”

But on Sept. 6, when the issue came to a high visibility AQMD Board voted action that ended the agency’s pursuit of an MHF phase-out, Mayor Garcia was invisible and inaudible.

(To view contributions to Mayor Garcia and Council incumbents from Valero and a politically active union supportive of the refineries’ position, scroll down further into article.)

Over 140 individuals signed up to speak at the Sept. 6 AQMD Board meeting; they were given 1 minute each.

Multiple business groups (including the LB Area Chamber of Commerce, L.A. Bizfed) and organized labor (representing a refinery and allied workers) spoke in support of accepting the refineries’ proffer. Over the past two years, the business and labor constituencies had formed a de facto alliance opposing a ban/phase-out of MHF. They were joined by multiple non-profits (including the “Boys and Girls Clubs of Long Beach”) that receive financial support from the refineries that argued against a phase-out/ban.

As early as April 20, 2018, the politically powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor submitted written comments opposing a ban on MHF. “There has been no finding that MHF presents a risk to communities surrounding the refineries,” wrote the group’s president, Rusty Hicks (recently elected chair of the CA Democratic Party.) Mr. Hicks’ letter can be viewed in full here.

Among those voting to accept the refineries’ proffer of refinery-favored voluntary measures with continued use of MHF were AQMD Board chair Dr. William Burke who’d been publicly equivocal on the issue. When Burke publicly signaled his support for the refineries’ proffer, it drew shouts of “shame on you” from the audience. L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino and OC Supervisor Lisa Bartlett also joined in accepting the refineries’ proffer (vote tally below.)


Following the AQMD Board vote, the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance — a large and influential grassroots group whose leadership includes multiple southbay area PhDs, scientists and aerospace industry workers who organized themselves after the 2015 “near miss” — stated on its Facebook page: “The South Coast Air Quality Management District failed today in their duty to protect the health and prioritizer the safety of the community despite overwhelming evidence that Hydrofluoric Acid is a risk too great.”

Previous scientific testimony to AQMD, and presentations by AQMD’s staff, described the consequences of a catastrophic release in an uncontrolled event (earthquake, explosion or intentional act) as low likelihood but high consequence.

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

MFH consists of roughly 93-94% Hydrofluoric acid (HF), a highly corrosive chemical that if accidentally released can cause permanent health injuries or deaths to those within its path. Scientists say that on release, HF forms an expanding ground-hugging cloud that doesn’t dissipate upward; instead it expands travels over distances in whatever direction the prevailing wind sends it, dissipating gradually over distance. It can burn exposed skin, and is absorbed into the body, damaging bones and internal organs. Scientists testified in AQMD proceedings that HF/MHF can cause permanent heath injuries and deaths for persons within the path of the ground hugging cloud at various distances depending on the amount released, exposure concentration, weather, duration and other factors.

MHF is brought to the two refineries via tanker trucks traveling along various area freeways adjoining or in relatively close proximity to multiple neighborhoods (with some risk that an otherwise routine traffic accident might cause an MHF release.)

At a Feb. 1, 2019 meeting of AQMD’s governing board, AQMD staff delivered a PPT presentation that provided an overview of the issues before the AQMD board at that time. Some of its salient slides are below.

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019



AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

[Further below is video of 1986 field test of release of HF.]

AQMD staff also indicated that an MHF release would strain the ability of nearby hospitals and medical personnel to handle large numbers of patients who would require specialized treatment for MHF injuries.(Scroll down for further on previous AQMD presentations/testimony)

In the wake of the 2015 “near miss,” AQMD opened a rulemaking proceeding to explore adopting a rule phasing-out/banning continued use of MHF at the two refineries. AQMD staff told the Board that the refineries could convert to using a safer chemical (sulfuric acid) at a sizable but manageable cost. The two refineries argued that their use of MHF is safe, said there’s never been a successful conversion, and said there is no current feasible economically viable alternative to their continued use of MHF. As an alternative to a rule banning/phasing out MHF, the refineries offered to enter into an MOU (“Memorandum of Understanding”), a contract to be negotiated between AQMD and the refineries, implementing more stringent safety measures.

But by accepting the refineries proffer, AQMD’s board majority has now simply ended its process.

In its Feb. 1 presentation, AQMD staff included a video clip from 1986 tests conducted by scientists to document and measure an HF release (before MHF was invented.) The tests showed that a golf-ball size hole (1.65″) released 1,000 gallons of HF within 2 minutes. Once released and produced an HF ground hugging cloud that didn’t disperse upward but rapidly expanded at breathing height (below 8 feet.) It traveled at the recorded wind speed of 18 feet per second, and under those conditions, in less than 10 minutes the corrosive toxic cloud traveled up to two miles. Within that distance, scientists measured HF at roughly double lethal levels.

AQMD acknowledged that this was an “unmitigated” release and the two refineries have certain “mitigation measures” on site, but noted that those systems, like others, can fail (as a different system did that caused the 2015 Torrance explosion and “near miss”) and such failures can cascade in natural disasters (earthquakes) or with deliberate acts.

A video clip from the 1986 test shows the released HF forming the rapidly spreading, ground hugging traveling cloud. The video clip is included in on-demand VIDEO of AQMD staff’s full Feb. 1 presentation, followed by public testimony, AQMD board discussion and voted action) which can be viewed here (Video of the 1986 HF test starts at 1:43:40.)

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

To view AQMD’s accompanying Feb. 1 PPT presentation in full, click here.

AQMD staff has indicated it believes it’s possible to convert the two refineries to use a less dangerous chemical — sulfuric acid — although its use would entail more truck trips. In 2017, a firm hired by the ToRC refinery estimated conversion would cost $600 million plus $300 million for post-processing equipment. AQMD staff considers those figures high and contends (with caveats on the need to study the feasibility of reusing some current equipment) that the cost would be roughly $300 million for a converted alkylation facility, not $600 million. AQMD staff indicated the Valero Wilmington refinery didn’t offer a conversion cost estimate but has indicated it would face space constraints.

The gathering storm

On August 18, 2017, Valero Wilmington (part of Ultramar) submitted a sternly worded letter in the AQMD Rule 1410 proceeding, questioning the need for any AQMD action, stating in part:

…Valero reiterates that the District has yet to establish a need for any action at all, much use a complete ban on the use of the very technology that the District aggressively sought to implement fewer than fifteen years ago.

The staff presentation suggests their rationale for pursuing a ban is based on worst-case scenario offsite consequence modeling,,,,This is an insufficient basis for several reasons. First, there is nothing new about the Wilmington Refinery’s offsite consequence modeling; we suspect the same is true for the Torrance refinery. It is completely arbitrary for the District to conclude in 2004 that the Alky REVAP project to be installed in the Wilmington refinery met the District’s objectives for protection of human health and safety, only to reach a different conclusion in 2017 on the basis of the same information…

Moreover, ay determination to ban the use of a chemical on the basis that WCS [worst case scenario] modeling reflects a hypothetical potential to result in offsite consequences is plainly arbitrary.

We again urge the District to consider all relevant information and not rush headlong into an action that is unnecessary and may have significant adverse consequences.

Valero Wilmington has since indicated that, like ToRC, it’s amenable to discussing an MOU offering increased safety measures as an alternative to a Rule.

Representatives of the two refineries have both said their use of MHF is safe and oppose an AQMD rule/phase-out/ban. In April 2018, the TORC Torrance refinery submitted a letter stating in pertinent part: “Our industry tacks Process Safety Events, even very minor ones, and we have now operated for more than nine months without any such events…In spite of a small band of activists’ misinformation campaign that mischaracterizes or Alkylation unit, our workforce remains committed to safely and reliably producing the clean transportation fuels that Southern California citizens demand for day-to-day mobility.”

On August 22, 2017, the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce submitted written comments in the Rule 1410 proceeding. (The LB Chamber’s website lists Valero Wilmington as a member of its “Chairman’s Circle” at highest “Diamond” level and indicates Valero Wilmington also has a seat on the Chamber’s governing board.) In an August 22, 2017 letter, LB Chamber President/CEO Randy Gordon wrote in pertinent part:

After viewing the July 6th California Energy Commission presentation made by Gordon Schremp, Senior Fuel Analyst for the California Energy Commission, I have concerns about the impacts of this proposed ban for California’s consumers, our regional economy, and to global air emissions.

According to Schremp, a ban could decrease Southern California’s local supply of gasoline for a period of at least two years. These incremental impacts to gasoline costs for consumers and businesses could mean billions of dollars in additional, higher costs. California’s working families and local businesses cannot afford these dramatically higher costs, especially on top of price increases resulting from existing and pending mandates, taxes, and fees.

I am also concerned that potentially reducing refinery output will force us to import our fuels from outside the state — which dramatically increases global air emissions. An analysis by Stillwater and Associates from the July 6th California Energy Commission Meeting found that, because of California’s geographic and infrastructural isolation, a ban would necessitate offshore refiners to “produce the products and ship them half way around the world to the California market. As a result, average spot prices could rise 25 cpg [cents per gallon] more, and ultimately the California consumer would pay the price.”

While we are all concerned about safety, we should acknowledge the lead the Governor has taken with these issues which have already resulted in increased safety regulations for all refineries that are the strongest in the nation.

I strongly encourage Board Members and staff to analyze what these impacts mean for our economy.

On April 28, 2018, roughly 500 people attended an AQMD meeting held in Torrance, overflowing the Torrance City Council Chamber and accommodated in a special event tent outside.

April 28, 2018. photo

April 28, 2018. photo

The grassroots Torrance Refinery Action Alliance (TRAA) said in April it had collected over 11,000 petition signatures (at that time) from southbay areas supporting a phase-out/ban on MHF.


April 28, 2018 Torrance AQMD meeting, photo

April 28, 2018 Torrance AQMD meeting, photo

Refinery workers, organized by their unions, likewise had a sizable presence.

April 28, 2018, Torrance AQMD meeting. photo

In September, over 800 people attended the AQMD meeting on the issue in LB-adjacent Wilmington. TRAA again had a sizable showing and presented the thousands of petition signatures to the AQMD board.


Sept. 22, 2018 Wilmington AQMD meeting. photo

Sept. 22, 2018 Wilmington AQMD meeting. photo

And again at the Wilmington hearings, refinery employees showed up in force to oppose a phase-out/ban on MHF.

Sept. 22, 2018 Wilmington AQMD meeting. LBREPORT.colm photo

Sept. 22, 2018 Wilmington AQMD meeting. photo

Since at least 2017, SQAMD has had a “working group” discussing development of proposed Rule 1410. The working group member roster is visible at this link and indicates it included no representatives of the City of Long Beach or any Long Beach grassroots or neighborhood groups. However one of the “working group” members — representing the City of Los Angeles (Office of Petroleum and Natural Gas Administration) — is Uduak-Joe Ntuk (elected in 2018 to LBCC’s governing Board of Trustees.) spotted Mr. Ntuk at the April 2018 and September 2018 AQMD meetings on the issue; at the April meeting, Mr. Ntuk politely declined comment, noting that his involvement is in the capacity of a representative of the City of Los Angeles.

Follow the Money and Politics

A number of Long Beach Councilmembers (who set city policy) plus LB’s Mayor (who doesn’t set policy but frequently speaks to it) have received contributions from Valero and politically active organized labor supportive of the refineries’ stance on the MHF issue: The contributions below are from “Valero, San Antonio, TX” unless otherwise indicated

Garcia for Mayor 2018

  • 04/05/18: $400
  • Lena Gonzalez for City Council 2018

  • 09/07/17: $400
  • 04/05/18: $400
  • Suzie Price for City Council 2018

  • 05/17/17: $400 (from “Valero PAC, Long Beach)”
  • 04/04/18: $400
  • Suzie Price Officeholder Account

  • 06/29/18: $400
  • Stacy Mungo for City Council 2018

  • 04/5/18: $400
  • 05/31/18: $400
  • Roberto Uranga for City Council 2018

  • 04/7/18: $400
  • 05/23/18: $400
  • Rex Richardson for City Council 2018

  • 04/07/18: $400And below are contributions to LB’s Mayor and Council incumbents from two politically active unions that submitted written comments to AQMD opposing a proposed rule that would phase out MHF at the Valero Wilmington and Torrance ToRC refineries.
  • 06/08/2017: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $800
  • 03/29/2017 Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $800
  • 11/17/2017 Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $1,000
  • Garcia Officeholder Account

  • 12/11/2017 L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $500
  • 09/27/2018 L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $500
  • 11/29/2017 Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $1,000
  • 07/17/2018 Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $1,000
  • Lena Gonzalez for City Council 2018

  • 07/24/17: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $400
  • 06/20/17: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $400
  • Lena Gonzalez Officeholder Account

  • 03/12/18: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $750
  • 02/10/17: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $700
  • Lena Gonzalez for State Senate

  • 01/18/19: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $9,300
  • Pearce Officeholder Account

  • 12/18/17: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $500
  • 12/18/18: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $500
  • 05/23/17: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $75
  • 0
  • 02/08/18: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $750
  • Suzie Price Officeholder Account

  • 08/15/17: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $400
  • 06/05/18: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $750
  • 05/23/17: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $750
  • 06/15/18: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $500
  • Mungo for City Council 2018

  • 06/28/17: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $400
  • Uranga for City Council 2018

  • 02/12/18: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $400
  • 06/13/18: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $400
    • Uranga Officeholder Account

    • 03/14/17: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $500
    • 10/02/18: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $750
    • Al Austin Officeholder Account

    • 08/25/17: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $750
    • Rex Richardson Officeholder Account

    • 03/08/18: L.A./OC Building & Construction Trades Council PAC $750
    • 02/16/17: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $750
    • 03/19/18: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $750
    • 08/29/18: Southern California Pipe Trades Dist. Council 16 $750

*Original article online at