Torrance officials and residents call for ban of refinery chemical

The use of a hazardous chemical at the Torrance Refining Co. should be eliminated in the wake of repeated fires and explosions that have occurred at the facility in recent years, elected officials and community activists said at a news conference Saturday morning.

The news conference took place outside the Torrance Marriott shortly before the South Coast Air Quality Management District began an investigative hearing on the effects on air quality at the Torrance refinery in the wake of what they termed “repeated breakdowns and associated flaring.”

In February, firefighters were called to put out a blaze at the former Exxon Mobil facility, now owned by New Jersey-based PBF Energy Inc. The fire occurred on the two-year anniversary of a major explosion that halted most of the refinery’s operations for well over a year.

The ensuing investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board revealed that a piece of equipment nearly crashed into a tank holding tens of thousands of pounds of modified hydrofluoric acid — a chemical that, according to the agency, could have produced a toxic cloud that could have caused “serious injury or death to many community members.”

Speaking at the news conference, state Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) said he had introduced a package of bills last month to address the safety concerns surrounding the plant, including eliminating the use of modified hydrofluoric acid in California refineries; requiring refineries to build a more effective community alert system and to install air quality monitors in neighborhoods around refineries; increasing the number of state safety inspectors; and establishing a state interagency task force on refinery safety.

“The Torrance refinery must make public safety their No. 1 priority,” Muratsuchi said, adding that he had lived just a few miles from the refinery at the time of the 2015 explosion.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district includes the Torrance refinery and the Valero refinery in Wilmington, both of which use modified hydrofluoric acid, said she asked the county Department of Public Health what the dangers of this chemical were. Among them, she said, are that inhalation of the chemical causes blood and fluid to build up in the lungs, “essentially drowning the person who comes into contact,” she said.

“The dangers this chemical poses to the public are clear and real,” Hahn added.

Hahn pointed to a report released by the Environmental Protection Agency this week that described operational and safety problems at the Torrance refinery.

“It is for these reasons that I believe that phasing out the use of modified hydrofluoric acid is not a matter of if, but when and how,” she said.

Catherine Leys of the group Families Lobbying Against Refinery Exposures and Torrance City Councilmen Tim Goodrich and Kurt Weideman also spoke at the news briefing.

“It is not enough to say in 30 years we have never had an incident beyond the fence line,” Weideman said, adding that he would “use my position as a Torrance council member as a bully pulpit, because I believe that history is on our side.”

The news conference followed a contentious Torrance City Council meeting Tuesday that was packed with residents concerned about the refinery.

In a recent opinion piece in the Daily Breeze, Jeffrey Dill, president of PBF Energy Western Region, pushed back against a proposed ban on the chemical.

“Scientifically valid analysis, a thorough and thoughtful review process and stakeholder input must be used to temper the emotion, misinformation and hasty decision-making that has been influencing public dialogue on this topic,” he wrote.

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