The seventh anniversary of the explosion at the Torrance Refinery was marked by a burst of activity aimed at finally phasing out use of modified hydroflouric acid, which could have killed thousands of residents if the explosion had happened just a little bit differently. But that phase-out would already be well under way if not for LA City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who blocked regulatory action at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, where he served until recently.

“Buscaino had the opportunity in 2018 to speak up for the phase out of HF but was quiet when his voice would have been decisive at that time,” said Steven Goldsmith, president of Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. “Again in 2019 he had the opportunity to vote against the continued use of HF in refineries and require the upgrade to a vastly safer alternative. In fact, he voted against public safety and with these two refineries to allow the continued use of an exceptionally hazardous chemical.”

On the federal level, four local U.S. representatives — Nanette Barragán, Karen Bass, Ted Lieu and Maxine Waters — sent a letter on Feb. 10 to EPA administrator Michael Regan supporting TRAA’s call for the phase-out. There are 40 facilities using some form of hydrofluoric acid across the US, and the intention is to gain the support of congressmembers representing all the surrounding communities, according to Goldsmith. (Rep. Liz Cheney’s district office in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is just two miles from one such refinery, he noted.) On the county level, on Feb. 15, all five supervisors voted for Supervisor Janice Hahn’s motion sending a letter to the governor and state attorney general, seeking similar action from the state.

But the most direct responsible authority, the AQMD, failed to act over a two-year period when Buscaino’s lack of support prevented action to require the phase-out. He never explained his reasoning, repeatedly refusing to meet with TRAA. After prolonged delay, an industry-supported alternative was hurriedly approved on Sept. 6, 2019, less than a week after it was first proposed in proffer letters from the Torrance Refinery and Valero Wilmington, the only other refinery using MHF. This action came despite a letter from LA County Department of Public Health reiterating support for the phase-out and citing major inadequacies of the alternative approach.

While discussions focused on transition to a sulfuric acid process, there are newer, safer ionic liquid processes, pioneered by Honeywell in the U.S. and Well Resources in Canada, which were routinely discounted, if not ignored. For example, at the June 22, 2019 meeting of AQMD’s Refinery Committee, Torrance Refinery Senior Engineer Adam Webb claimed his refinery would “continue to explore new alkylation technologies but, at this time, it is not economical or technically proven to replace MHF,” according to minutes of the meeting. He acknowledged the existence of Honeywell’s process but claimed Honeywell itself said “it would require five to six years of new technology operation before adopting new technology on a full scale.”

Yet, the day before that meeting, Well Resources sent AQMD a letter, saying that its process, known as “Ionikylation” had been developed over a 20-year period, with its first commercial demonstration in 2005, going on to say, “Since then, five commercial Ionikylation units have been constructed across the Asia-pacific and a total of 10 units will be built by 2020.”

Then there’s the claim of exorbitant cost. “Refineries in their testimony said it would cost about $1 billion — $900 million to $1 billion — to convert,” Goldsmith said. Yet, at the same time Valero was building a refinery in Destrehan, Louisiana using a new low-temperature advanced sulfuric acid process known as CDAlky. “Valero in their annual report said it was completed on time and under budget, and when they originally announced that, the budget was $416 million,” Goldsmith said. Time to complete was just 2 ½ years.

But Ionikylation is even cheaper. “All of the Ionikylation process equipment is fabricated using low-cost materials (carbon steel) because the catalyst is non-corrosive. In our most recent publication, the operator disclosed the turnkey capital costs for a 7,400 bpd brownfield new build ($78MM),” Well Resources told Random Lengths via email.

Conversion costs are more difficult to establish. “Conversions are assessed on a case-by-case basis because the location, status, and integrity of existing equipment must be considered,” Well said. “At a minimum, a conversion to Ionikylation requires installation of a new reactor and catalyst regeneration system.” Other elements of the production process “may be reused (case-by-case), resulting in significant cost reductions.” But, significantly, they added, “To date, none of the US-based refiners pointing to the prohibitive cost of transitioning away from HF have engaged with our company to assess Ionikylation.”

“We’re optimistic,” Goldsmith said. With many ways forward, only one has to work.

*Original article online at