In return, the refineries have offered to voluntarily install additional safety measures they contend will offer the surrounding communities “unprecedented additional layers of protection.”
The governing board of the South Coast Regional Air Quality District is set to consider the offer Friday, Sept. 6, in Diamond Bar, a move critics contend amounts to a political end run around a regulatory process that has its roots in the February 2015 explosion of the Torrance refinery, then owned by ExxonMobil.
That blast almost caused a release of the acid that could have killed or injured tens of thousands in the densely populated South Bay, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the federal agency that has probed the issue.
The board’s conclusion came even though a modified version of hydrofluoric acid is used with an additive intended to make it safer. That additive, according to Torrance Refinery officials, reduces acid vapor and causing most of the acid to fall to the ground.
Critics, including the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, contend the level of the additive employed is too low to confer much of a safety advantage.
Refinery officials, however, disagree.
“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.”
The board was originally scheduled to consider the issue at its November board meeting. The Refinery Committee recommended in June that the governing board adopt additional safety measures instead of a phase-out of the chemical.
Valero, which operates the refinery in Wilmington and owns the Ultramar gasoline brand, observed in a letter mailed to the South Coast Regional Air Quality District Friday, Aug. 30, that the current drawn-out process of negotiating an addendum to an existing memorandum of understanding offers “limited benefit” to the parties involved.
The company threatened to sue the district if additional regulations governing the chemical were imposed, saying the district “agreed to refrain from further regulation of HF” in the 2003 agreement between Ultramar and the agency.
“By accepting this proffer, the district and Ultramar will avoid the potential for litigation arising out of the agreement,” wrote Mark Phair, vice president and general manager of Ultramar.
“District, Ultramar and other stakeholders have expended almost three years in considering mitigation measures and alternatives,” Phair added. “This has taxed the resources of all those involved and resulted in no viable alternatives beyond mitigation measures outlined in this letter.”
South Bay county Supervisor and AQMD board member Janice Hahn noted via email Thursday, Sept. 5, that it was significant the letters were sent on a Friday before the Labor Day weekend.
“They were trying to sneak this by when the community was not paying attention and I am worried they might succeed,” she wrote. “They are attempting to circumvent the direction of the board.
“AQMD staff was supposed to report back on both an MOU and a rule,” Hahn added. “But this proposal for ‘self-imposed safety measures’ is even circumventing the possible MOU. This is a step down from an MOU, which was already a woefully inadequate way to protect the community.”
PBF Energy, owner of the Torrance refinery, countered that after almost 20 public meetings, with up to 500 people in attendance at some, it was time to bring the “very rigorous process” to a conclusion.
“All sides have made their case,” the company said Thursday via email, “so this is an appropriate time for the governing board to address our offer to install additional safeguards.”
The Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, which has lobbied for a phase-out of the chemical since the explosion, is mobilizing supporters for any possible decision or vote by the board at Friday’s meeting.
“It is long past due that the true hazards of HF are dealt with,” the nonprofit group said in a letter to the board. “TRAA strongly urges the board to see this offer of enhanced safety as it was truly meant, which is to end the rule making process and cut out the community voice as a stakeholder.”
The potential political showdown comes as the county Department of Public Health has renewed its call to get rid of the chemical because of the “unacceptable health and safety hazards” an accidental release poses to the public.
The department said such a scenario “would be catastrophic, resulting in negative health impacts to hundreds of thousands, including potentially causing mass casualties, within two miles.
“There are no existing emergency plans in place to establish the preparedness of first responders and field medical treatment for a mass casualty incident from a release,” wrote Dr. Muntu Davis, the Los Angeles County Health Officer. “Adequate resources of local medical centers, including personnel and medications, have not been established to treat a mass casualty after a release.”
The board meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Friday and can be streamed live on the AQMD website.