Search

Advocates renew call for MHF ban on 8th anniversary of Torrance refinery explosion

It’s been eight years since a massive explosion at the Torrance Refinery shook the South Bay — with the blast registering as a small earthquake, leaving four workers injured and coating the area in ash.

Since then, the Torrance Refinery has switched hands, from ExxonMobil — which owned the facility during the 2015 explosion — to PBF Energy currently. And officials from refineries across Los Angeles County, particularly in the South Bay, have touted efforts to reduce pollutants and prevent similar crises from occuring.

Officials with the Torrance and Wilmington refineries, meanwhile, have also repeatedly argued that a modified form of hydrofluoric acid, an important-but-combustible — and highly toxic — component in refining crude oil, is the safest compound available. Those refineries — operated by PBF and Valero, respectively — are the only two in the South Bay that still use the chemical in the oil alkylation process.

But that hasn’t stopped local advocates from calling for a ban on modified hydrofluoric acid, or MHF.

They did so again on Friday, Feb. 17, with the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance and a handful of elected officials renewing those calls for a ban during an event commemorating the eighth anniversary of the explosion.

“We need to continue to highlight the dangers of modified hydrochloric acid — we know that (it) is deadly, we know it’s toxic and corrosive,” Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán said during the event at Cal State Dominguez Hills. “I wanted to be here today because I wanted to make sure that you knew that I stand with you and I’m going to advocate until we make the community safer and until we phase out (M)HF.”

While Valero officials did not respond to requests for comment on Friday, PBF Energy, in a statement, argued that MHF doesn’t pose a widespread public health or safety threat to the community.

“The Torrance Refinery,” PBF spokesperson Barbara Graham said in an email, “has been safely and reliably manufacturing alkylate for transportation fuels using hydrogen fluoride (HF), including modified hydrogen fluoride (MHF), in its Alkylation Unit for more than 60 years, without any offsite impact.”

The effort to ban MHF became a local cause celebre after federal investigators reported that the 2015 explosion could have been much worse than originally thought.

That’s because a 40-ton piece of debris came five feet from puncturing a storage unit carrying tens of thousands of pounds of MHF, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. If the tanks had ruptured, the report said, thousands of residents in the South Bay area would have been at serious risk of harm — or even death.

TRAA first began its work to ban the chemical in the South Bay shortly after the explosion.

Then in 2017, after public pressure and protests intensified, a proposed MHF ban became a main focus of the Governing Board for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a state agency charged with regulating and mitigating air pollution in the region.

“We understand that trade offs are necessary when it comes to having refineries in Torrance and Wilmington, and certainly, we all benefit from the products and jobs they provide,” TRAA member Zach Badaquie said during Friday’s event. “However, there is no justification whatsoever for the continued use of (MHF) — period.”

Refinery officials, though, disagree.

Hydrofluoric acid was a standard chemical in oil refining, serving for decades as a catalyst during a process known as alkylation. But because of its highly corrosive nature and other safety incidents, former Torrance Refinery owner ExxonMobil, alongside Phillips 66 (which also has a refinery in Wilmington), created a modified version of the substance in the late 1980s. MHF, they argued — and continue arguing — prevents the poisonous chemical from spreading in gas form in the event of an accidental release.

Torrance Refinery’s current owner, PBF Energy, alongside Valero, have repeated that message since 2015, noting that they’ve also implemented other safety measures.

Graham, in her Friday statement, detailed those safety measures, such as installing a new protective steel structure, a water mitigation dome and curtain, an enhanced HF/MHF detection system and additional water mitigation monitors.

But TRAA activists have continued calling the efficacy of MHF into question, as has AQMD, whose own reports warned that the “ability of MHF to prevent formation of a vapor/aerosol cloud is highly uncertain” and that a “release of MHF will result in exposure to HF with the same health effects.”

Nearly 300 residents gather to protest at the PBF Energy refinery in Torrance on Saturday, Feb 17, 2018. It has been three years since the refinery explosion rocked the neighborhood and now residents are calling for a ban on the use of hydrofluoric acid at the refinery. (Photo by Scott Varley, Contributor)

After protesting at the PBF Energy refinery, the crowd heads back to Columbia Park in Torrance on Saturday, Feb 17, 2018. It has been three years since the refinery explosion rocked the neighborhood and now residents are calling for a ban on the use of hydrofluoric acid at the refinery. (Photo by Scott Varley, Contributor)

Prior to marching to protest at the PBF Energy refinery, people gather signs at Columbia Park in Torrance on Saturday, Feb 17, 2018. It has been three years since the refinery explosion rocked the neighborhood and now residents are calling for a ban on the use of hydrofluoric acid at the refinery. (Photo by Scott Varley, Contributor)

Protester march to the PBF Energy refinery in Torrance on Saturday, Feb 17, 2018. It has been three years since the refinery explosion rocked the neighborhood and now residents are calling for a ban on the use of hydrofluoric acid at the refinery. (Photo by Scott Varley, Contributor)

Nearly 300 residents gather to protest at the PBF Energy refinery in Torrance on Saturday, Feb 17, 2018. It has been three years since the refinery explosion rocked the neighborhood and now residents are calling for a ban on the use of hydrofluoric acid at the refinery. (Photo by Scott Varley, Contributor)

of

Expand

A proposed rule, which would have required a gradual phase-out of MHF at both refineries and mandated a transition to a different catalyst — such as sulfuric acid, which other refineries nationwide use and advocates say is safer — garnered support from several elected officials, including Reps. Barragan, Ted Lieu and Maxine Waters, alongside the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Graham, for her part, said in her statement that MHF is the best option for the type of refining process that allows the Torrance facility to meet California’s toughest-in-the-nation tailpipe emissions regulations. She also called TRAA’s arguments against MHF “misleading.”

“Although small-scale, alternative alkylation technology options are under development,” she said, “they have not yet been proven to be safe, reliable from a mechanical integrity perspective, and commercially viable at the scale of the Torrance Refinery Alkylation Unit.”

The Torrance Refinery can process 155,000 barrels of crude oil a day, on average, and produces 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline per year, according to its website — which is nearly 10% of California’s demand.

Chevron, though, successfully converted its Salt Lake City refinery from HF to a new alkylation technology last year.

Either way, after years of back-and-forth, the proposed ban on MHF died on the AQMD Governing Board’s floor in 2019.

Instead, the agency opted to accept proposals from both refineries offering voluntary safety improvements to their existing MHF units.

L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn later called those improvements “toothless.”

“We asked Supervisor Hahn, ‘What should we do?’ and she strongly said, ‘Don’t quit,’” TRAA President Steve Goldsmith said Friday. “So, we escalated.”

Graham, however, touted those safety enhancements and noted other audits the Torrance refinery has faced, including a court-appointed technology review.

“Despite these reviews and enhancements, a small activist group has been making misleading statements against the Refinery’s use of MHF,” Graham said. “They claim that ‘nothing has been done’ to protect the community from MHF, which is incorrect.”

TRAA, though, hasn’t relented and is now focusing its advocacy on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is currently in the process of reviewing public comments regarding its proposed “Risk Management Program Safer Communities by Chemical Accident Prevention Proposed Rule.” That rule, if passed, “is expected to make communities safer by reducing the frequency of chemical releases and their adverse effects,” according to the EPA’s website.

“This draft rule actually takes a big step backwards unfortunately,” Bob Bostock, who formerly served as the EPA’s first assistant to the Department of Homeland Security, said on Friday. “It’s really important that this next rule that EPA issues, which will probably happen later this year, really finally takes the steps that are needed to reduce the hazards posed by these facilities.”

Bostock and the TRAA are not alone on that: California Attorney General Bob Bonta and 20 other attorneys general from across the country authored an 80-page letter to the EPA in 2021 urging the organization the add better safeguards to the proposed rule — citing concerns about MHF use at the Torrance and Wilmington refineries specifically.

Rep. Maxine Waters, whose congressional district includes Torrance, speaks in support of an MHF ban at Cal State Dominguez Hills via Zoom on Friday, Feb. 17. (Photo by Kristy Hutchings/SCNG).

The Torrance Refinery Action Alliance has advocated against the use of MHF in the South Bay for years. (Photo by Kristy Hutchings/SCNG)

Rep. Nanette Díaz Barragán, whose congressional district includes many South Bay cities including Wilmington, speaks to a crowd of TRAA supporters at Cal State Dominguez Hills on Friday, Feb. 17 (Photo by Kristy Hutchings/SCNG)

of

Expand

“Refineries and chemical plants are often located where Californians live, work, and go to school,” Bonta said in a news release.  “While California has strong regulations in place to prevent chemical accidents, we’re urging the federal government to go even further by establishing strong national standards to protect people from hazardous chemicals.”

And just last month, Barragán — whose congressional district includes Wilmington — Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, also urged the EPA to consider ways to strengthen the proposed rule and ensure the highest possible safeguards for communities near high-risk facilities.

Though the public comment period on the proposed rule closed in October, the EPA received more than 57,000 letters and emails about the proposed rule, according to its website. The agency is expected to release new guidelines no later than August.

Waters, for her part, joined Barragán in speaking at the TRAA’s event, though she did so via Zoom. She congratulated TRAA on its determination.

“Your persistence has brought attention to the extreme dangers of this chemical,” Waters, who represents Torrance, said, “and forced the refineries to consider alternatives — and forced the EPA to consider phasing out MHF and preventing a devastating mass casualty event.”

Sign up for The Localist, our daily email newsletter with handpicked stories relevant to where you live. Subscribe here.
Share the Post:

Related Posts