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Climate & Environment

Air board kills regulation of dangerous refinery acid in favor of oil industry plan

Cars drive by the Torrance refinery in 2016.
Cars drive by the Torrance refinery, where a 2015 explosion narrowly missed crashing into a tank containing hydrofluoric acid. The chemical can form a deadly, ground-hugging cloud if released.
(Michael Owen Baker / For the Times)

Air quality regulators on Friday killed a years-long push for stronger regulation of a dangerous acid used at two South Bay refineries that has frightened many neighbors, voting instead to accept a voluntary, oil industry pledge to enhance safety measures.

The decision by the South Coast Air Quality Management District governing board came just one week after the two refineries, in Torrance and Wilmington, offered a way to avoid tougher restrictions. They sent letters offering to install improved safety systems in the coming years if regulators ended their pursuit of a rule or agreement to reduce the risk of a catastrophic release of modified hydrofluoric acid, also referred to as MHF.

The board adopted the refineries’ plan on an 8-3 vote, handing a major victory to labor and industry groups, which have fought community groups and regulators’ attempts to restrict the highly toxic chemical following a 2015 explosion at the Torrance refinery.

Hydrofluoric acid can form a deadly, ground-hugging cloud that could drift into the densely populated communities surrounding the two refineries, and could cause mass casualties in a major leak. About 400,000 people live within three miles of either the Torrance or Valero Wilmington refineries.

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The nearest homes are about 1,600 feet from the Torrance facility, where community groups have sought a ban on modified hydrofluoric acid after the 2015 explosion alarmed neighbors. Oil companies, other powerful business interests and labor unions opposed a ban.

The air quality panel’s five Republicans were joined by three Democrats in voting for the oil industry proposal, including Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is Mayor Eric Garcetti’s appointee to the panel, and Vanessa Delgado, a former state senator appointed by state Senate Leader Toni Atkins.

“I know we need to phase it out but now is not the time,” air board Chairman William A. Burke said before voting for the oil industry’s plan.

Three Democrats voted in opposition, including L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who criticized the plan’s lack of teeth and said she believed “the only way to eliminate the risk is to eliminate this deadly chemical.”

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“I think it’s a sad excuse for the agreement that I thought we were working towards,” Hahn said.

South Bay residents and environmentalists were dismayed by the panel’s decision, saying the oil industry had extracted an arrangement from air quality officials that contains no binding provisions and fails to protect the public.

Isabel Balboa, who lives about a mile from the Torrance facility, said the refineries don’t want to switch to a safer technology “because they’re selfish, greedy and don’t care about their communities or our lives.”

“They’d rather see all of us die than spend their own money to do what is moral and correct,” she said, urging the air board “to do your job and pass a ban on MHF. A curtain and a hose aren’t going to save any of us.”

The air district staff’s proposal, developed over more than two years of meetings and debate, would have required the refineries meet a “performance standard” by demonstrating their safety measures would keep hydroflouric acid levels within a specific, health-protective threshold in a major release, or phase out the chemical if they could not.

In June, the air board’s Republican-controlled refinery committee moved to close the door on a regulation banning the chemical. Instead, it proposed to allow refineries to keep using modified hydrofluoric acid, with enhanced safety measures, through a formal agreement with the refineries.

The plan approved Friday is considerably weaker. It goes further in the industry’s favor in ruling out even an agreement with regulators to reduce risks to nearby communities.

Steve Goldsmith of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance said air board members “caved into the pressure by the oil industry” with a decision that “leaves South L.A. County residents exposed to catastrophic danger.”

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“Another government body needs to step in to protect the community and do what the SCAQMD failed to do,” Goldsmith said.

Business and labor groups have raised concerns that phasing out hydroflouric acid would threaten refinery-related jobs.

Dan Hoffman, who heads the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, told the panel that the refineries’ proposals “offer you that safety and offer us economic security at the same time, while protecting our communities and employees.”

Los Angeles County health officials, however, have warned that system failures, natural disasters or terrorist attacks at the facilities could lead to a disastrous release of hydrofluoric acid that would overwhelm hospitals with burn victims.

In a letter Tuesday to the air district, county health officer Muntu Davis wrote that the absence of a regulation to phase out the chemical “will continue to jeopardize the health and safety of workers and residents.”

A golf ball-sized hole can release 1,000 gallons of hydrofluoric acid in two minutes, forming a dense, low-hanging cloud of vapor that remains at twice-lethal levels two miles away, field experiments have shown. The chemical can quickly inflict severe health damage and death by burning the skin and lungs and penetrating deep tissues and bones.

While hydrofluoric acid is used at about about 50 of the nation’s 150 refineries to make high-octane gasoline, Valero’s Wilmington refinery and Torrance Refining Co., owned by PBF Energy, are the only two refineries in California that use the chemical.

Southern California community groups and environmentalists have been urging the air board to move forward with a rule to phase out the chemical within four years. They say the risks of continued use are too great and that the board should require a shift to safer, widely used alternatives that do not form a deadly vapor cloud, such as sulfuric acid.

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Industry has complained that switching to a safer technology would cost them hundreds of millions of dollars and has said it is not a viable solution.

Paul Davis, western region president for PBF Energy, said a voluntary approach will be the fastest way to install stronger safety equipment within the next few years.

The refineries’ promised safety enhancements include leak-detection sensors, protective barriers and systems that spray large amounts of water to prevent hydrofluoric acid from spreading through the air.

Mark Phair, the general manager of Valero’s Wilmington Refinery, called those measures “unprecedented additional layers of protection.”

A 2015 explosion at the Torrance refinery sent a 40-ton piece of equipment just short of crashing into a massive tank containing the chemical. Federal chemical safety regulators called it a “serious near miss” that could have resulted in a “potentially catastrophic release” killing or injuring many people nearby.

Regulators have highlighted other near-miss incidents, including a series of explosions that ripped through a South Philadelphia oil refinery in June and a 2018 explosion and fire at a refinery in Superior, Wis.


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