Late revelations that a controversial chemical is being used at the Big West refinery without it being reported to the county may have cost the facility’s expansion proposal hard-won community support at a critical moment.
County Supervisor Mike Maggard said Thursday he was struggling to trust the company after it revealed hydrofluoric acid has been used, in a highly diluted form, at the refinery. He said the company has previously told the county the chemical is not used there.
“I don’t think they’ve been truthful enough,” Maggard said.
Big West officials denied withholding the information. The company’s health, safety and environmental director, Bill Chadick, said the use of fluid containing low concentrations of HF to maintain injection wells was stated in the project’s environmental impact report.
The fluid is commonly used in the local oil industry, he said, and doesn’t pose the significant hazards of pure hydrofluoric acid, a highly regulated substance that sparked community concern when the company first proposed to use it in the expansion.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” Chadick said. “There’s a huge distinction here between anhydrous HF and the aqueous solution.”
The expansion is scheduled to have its final review before supervisors on Tuesday. Maggard’s stance is key because the project is in his district and supervisors commonly take that into consideration.
Big West’s proposed use of hydrofluoric acid in new refining equipment it wanted to build was the most controversial aspect of its initial expansion plans.
Community groups and environmental lawyers raised big objections. If spilled, HF can form a toxic vapor known to cause serious burns to the lungs and skin, and exposure can be fatal. Big West later decided to use modified HF, a safer form of the chemical, but objections remained strong.
In recent weeks, most of the objectors, county planners and Big West coalesced around an alternative process that didn’t involve using HF and the Kern County Planning Commission recommended supervisors approve the expansion.
Local officials said Thursday they are studying the risks of the diluted HF now being used at the refinery. It is used at some other facilities in Kern County, according to county records.
Chadick said the diluted HF used at the refinery, at concentrations of 1 to 5 percent, doesn’t vaporize when spilled. He said the solution isn’t stored on site and is only brought to the refinery a few times a year when a contractor performs maintenance on injections wells.
Betsy Ramsey, spokeswoman for Bakersfield Citizens Against Hydrofluoric Acid, said if the news about Big West is true, the company “has betrayed our community and our trust by placing countless thousands of people — including our children — at risk from a danger they have failed to disclose.”
Ramsey spoke up in support of Big West after the company embraced an expansion plan that did not use HF, modified HF or sulfuric acid.
“On a personal level I feel betrayed,” she said.
Over the last year, Big West has repeatedly told the county it did not currently use HF at the refinery, said county Planning Director Ted James.
But on Oct. 7, refinery officials asked to remove a proposed ban on the use of hydrofluoric acid, modified HF and sulfuric acid at the Rosedale Highway facility.
Planners asked why.
Refinery officials said a contractor is already shipping diluted HF to the refinery and using it to clean steam injection wells used to dispose of treated wastewater.
Shocked planners asked why the company told the county it wasn’t using the chemical.
“They said they weren’t thinking about the contractors and they weren’t thinking about the diluted HF,” said Kern County Planning Director Ted James.
Chadick said he couldn’t remember exact conversations about diluted HF but was sure its use to maintain injection wells was discussed with county officials. He said the process has taken place at the refinery for decades.
Kern County Environmental Health Services Director Matt Constantine said Big West has told the county that trucks carrying between 2,000 and 8,000 gallons of the HF-containing solution travel to the refinery a few times each year.
The material is used to clean steam injection wells — four of which currently exist on the property and nine that would be built as part of the expansion, said Kern County Planner Lorelei Oviatt.
Big West officials have told the county that wells need cleaning once every six to 24 months, Constantine said.
Planners hope to finish an analysis of the chemical risks and release a report Monday.
“With a diluted liquid acid there is some concern if you’re directly exposed to it, but it generally wouldn’t present as much of a risk as an air release,” Constantine said.
In general such a low concentration of the chemical will not vaporize, he said.
Maggard said the major concern for him is Big West’s conduct throughout the refinery expansion process.
“I think there is a pattern with them that they haven’t been as transparent as possible, as soon as possible,” Maggard said.
Maggard said he will not automatically move to stop the project Tuesday or refer the expansion back to staff for months of additional review. But he could do both.
Refinery officials must come clean Tuesday about all safety risks to the “300,000 people (who) live in the shadow of that facility,” Maggard said.