Torrance City Council members expressed surprise Tuesday that an $88,000 study on safety of the Mobil Oil refinery will not answer their key question: What is the risk of the plant continuing to use hydrofluoric acid — an acutely toxic chemical — in the refining process.
“That was the most important aspect of the whole study — hydrofluoric acid and the use of it,” Councilman George Nakano said. “We need to move forward on it.”
The council told the staff Tuesday night to start looking for another consultant who can answer the question the council asked in the first place. Mobil is paying for the current study and the council indicated it would expect the company to pay for the new one as well. Neither the council members nor City Manager LeRoy Jackson could say why the question was not covered by the contract with consultant, Gage-Babcock & Associates.
The Torrance Fire Department has asked Mobil to conduct a risk assessment of the chemical, but that study will not be completed until at least next March.
Council members chose not to wait that long.
The council has been asking since March about the potential risk that the use of hydrofluoric acid poses to the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work within 5 miles of the refinery, and expressed frustration that they could not get an answer.
“The greatest hazard I see at the refinery is the use of hydrofluoric acid,” Nakano told the council Tuesday. “I think we really need to key in on this.”
Nakano had asked the city staff in March to assess the risk of hydrofluoric acid versus an alternative — sulfuric acid — in the gasoline refining process. But city staff reported it lacked the expertise to make the assessment, and the search for a consultant began.
The use of hydrofluoric acid became an issue after an accumulation of the chemical caused a massive explosion that rocked the Mobil refinery Nov. 24, sparking a spectacular fire that burned for two days. The explosion and fire led to the release of an estimated 100 pounds of the acid in liquid form, but none escaped the refinery grounds.
In the wake of the explosion, the South Coast Air Quality Management District said the acid, if released in sufficient quantities, forms hydrogen fluoride gas and could “pose an extreme and immediate health hazard to exposed citizens.” It ordered a government/industry task force to consider phasing out the chemical in Los Angeles County.
The Environmental Policy Institute in Washington warned last December that oil industry tests conducted in the Nevada desert showed that a 1,000-gallon spill of hydrofluoric acid could produce a toxic gas cloud lethal to all exposed within a range of 5 miles from the release point. From 5 to 7.5 miles away, the cloud could cause skin burns and eye and lung problems, according to the institute.
An estimated 477,000 people live within 5 miles of the Mobil refinery.
It was Nakano’s questions last winter about the potential hazard that in part prompted the city staff to look into the risks posed by using hydrofluoric instead sulfuric acid as a catalyst to boost the octane of unleaded gasoline.
In response, the city staff reported that about 29,700 gallons of hydrofluoric acid are stored at the refinery. The refinery used 173,810 gallons last year.
However, council members learned this week that the safety study will not weigh the relative risks of hydrofluoric versus sulfuric acid.
William E. Backes, vice president of Gage-Babcock, said in an interview that his firm will examine safety measures at the refinery and whether they are adequate, but will not do a safety comparison of the two acids in refining gasoline.
“I believe it was (the city’s) feeling that this subject was being addressed through other avenues,” he said.
Councilman Dan Walker said council members incorrectly assumed that the answer would emerge from the Gage-Babcock study due to be completed in October.
There are at least three studies of the refinery in progress — the Gage-Babcock study, the Air Quality Management District task force and a risk management plan for hydrofluoric acid sought by the Torrance Fire Department.
Mobil has agreed to do the risk management study at a cost of more than $100,000, according to refinery manager Wyman D. Robb, but it will not be finished until March. Robb said he sees no need for another study.
City officials defended the need for a study, which would be completed sooner.
Press for Elimination
“It was a shock, to put it mildly, to find out that the information that I wanted would not be forthcoming until the middle part of next year,” Walker said.
“Based on the information I have now I would press as hard as I possibly could for an absolute total elimination of hydrofluoric acid from that facility,” Walker said. “If I thought there was some way to do it tomorrow, I’d do it tomorrow.”
But Walker said that due process requires the city to gather as much information as possible.
“I can’t see this being dragged out until the middle of next year merely because there are a lot of agencies looking at it,” he said.
City Manager Jackson said the air management task force is not likely to “produce a quick report, analysis or judgment” about hydrofluoric acid, so the city will have to take the lead on the question.
During brief council debate, divisions between council members about their approach to the refinery issue became apparent.
Councilman Bill Applegate said he would hope that any further study would examine the costs involved in changing the refinery process.
Mobil refinery manager Robb said in an interview that it could cost between $60 million and $100 million and take two years to convert the refinery to use sulfuric acid rather than hydrofluoric acid.
“There are pluses and minuses” in the use of hydrofluoric acid, Robb said. “Mobil has quite a number of locations that use hydrofluoric acid. We’ve used it for more than 40 years and so we’ve learned a lot about it. We believe we’ve learned to make it as safe as it can be.”
He noted that a greater quantity of sulfuric acid is needed, which means more trucks or railroad cars to the refinery. Sulfuric acid is also a more costly process and does not produce the same high-quality super unleaded gasoline, he said.
Mobil will await the results of the risk management study before determining whether it will be necessary to change processes. “We want to operate a safe facility out there,” Robb said. “It is certainly not in our interest to have any equipment operating out there that is not safe.”