Torrance City Council votes against banning toxic hydrofluoric acid at refinery

Residents fill every seat in council chambers to voice their concerns about the safety of the Torrance refinery during a City Council meeting Tuesday night.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Torrance City Council has rejected a resolution calling for a ban of the toxic chemical hydrofluoric acid at the troubled local oil refinery, instead deferring to regulators and relevant parties to determine how best to ensure community safety.

The council votes came shortly after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report finding lax safety practices at the refinery.

After voting 5 to 2 against the proposal by Councilman Tim Goodrich during a meeting that stretched into the early morning hours Wednesday, the council unanimously voted for an alternate resolution to support the decisions of regulators.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Goodrich said after the council meeting. “I thought this was an opportunity to provide some guidance to regulators. I think the other council members didn’t feel comfortable saying we should have a phase-out of hydrofluoric acid.”


Goodrich described the alternate resolution as “milquetoast,” but he said he voted for it anyway because “it was better than nothing.”

Inspectors from the EPA found numerous safety violations at the Torrance oil refinery during reviews of the plant last fall, according to a report released Monday.

Among the numerous findings in the 12-page report, inspectors cited the refinery for safety systems and equipment that were “non-operational on a recurring basis,” incorrect identification of a flammable storage unit, and failure to document who was responsible for the risk management program.

Some of the troubles cited in the report are related to equipment involving the use of the highly toxic chemical hydrofluoric acid, which residents near the plant want banned because of its threat to human safety and health.

Inspectors found that the vessels containing the acid were missing required labels that confirmed when repairs had been made to fix leaking nozzles.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District earlier this year proposed a ban on hydrofluoric acid because of safety concerns.

Hydrofluoric acid is highly dangerous because it can immediately penetrate the skin and destroy tissue. The Torrance refinery is one of only two in the state that still use the acid. Critics say that if there is an explosion, it could release a deadly toxic cloud for miles because of the volume of the chemical used at the plant.

The refinery’s owner, New Jersey-based PBF Energy, has until April 27 to respond to the inspection findings.

Jeff Dill, president of PBF’s western division, said the company was reviewing the EPA report.

“As we have in the past, we will appropriately address any EPA requests for additional information,” Dill said. “We are committed to operating in compliance with all laws and requirements applicable to the refinery.”

The Torrance refinery has been the source of growing scrutiny following an explosion at the plant in February 2015 that destroyed a pollution control unit. The incident shut down the majority of the plant’s operations for more than a year.

During that time, the plant, then owned by Exxon Mobil, operated at less than 20% of its capacity, which sent gasoline prices soaring in the Los Angeles area. The Torrance refinery supplies 10% of the state’s refined gasoline capacity and 20% in Southern California.

Residents and critics of Exxon Mobil’s operations had hoped that the plant’s new owner, PBF, which acquired the facility in July, would run a safer refinery.

But since PBF took over, the plant has endured one mishap after another, including temporary shutdowns, flaring and a fire.

“It is very startling,” said Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. “Even the equipment that they use on a daily basis is poorly maintained.... This is why we have to stop relying on the refinery to keep us safe.”

Mara Lang lives about four miles from the plant and said the lax safety is one reason why she believes the refinery should stop using hydrofluoric acid. She fears it could harm her family because of their proximity to the facility.

“It’s hard to get up and move, but that’s crossed my mind,” Lang said. “People don’t want to think about it, but we have to think about it. The refinery has gotten away with so much.”

Air quality regulators in October cited Torrance Refining for causing a public nuisance when it lost power Oct. 11, sending billowing black smoke from its flare for hours.

Now with the EPA report, the same frustrations with Exxon Mobil have transferred to PBF.

“This is really putting a red flag up over the refinery that says, ‘We can’t do business as usual anymore,’” said Jamie Court, president of advocacy firm Consumer Watchdog, which has been critical of the plant’s operations.

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March 29, 10 a.m.: This article was updated with the results of the Torrance City Council votes and comments from Councilman Tim Goodrich.

This article was originally published March 28 at 10:05 p.m.