David Mendez

Redondo Beach to support MHF refinery ban

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PBF Energy representative Michael Karlovich testifies before the Redondo Beach City Council as an activist waves a sign behind him. Photo by David Mendez

by David Mendez

The Redondo Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to support a ban on the use of a controversial catalyst in the Torrance Refining Company’s gasoline production process.

The Los Angeles Count Board of Supervisors has also called for a ban of Modified Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF), a chemical used as an alkalizing agent in oil refining.

“Even with all the knowledge I have about how oil refiners work, it’s not as helpful as you would think it is, talking about safety,” said Mayor Bill Brand, a trained chemical engineer with a background in refineries. “As an elected official, you look at situations knowing that any oil refinery is a bomb waiting to blow up.”

MHF became a significant topic of discussion in the days and weeks following the Feb. 2015 explosion, caused in part by aging equipment, at what was then the ExxonMobil Torrance Refinery. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board described the incident as causing a “near miss” event, in which debris from the explosion missed tanks holding MHF by a matter of feet.

Hydrofluoric acid (HF) poisoning occurs when it is absorbed into the skin It can cause injuries ranging from soft tissue irritation and burns to internal organ and bone damage. Upon release, HF forms a dense gaseous cloud that stays close to the ground. MHF is a diluted form reduces the danger against a release forming those rolling clouds.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has proposed a rule to alter the use of HF at refineries. It is deliberating among plans to introduce multiple layers of safety redundancies for MHF plants, as well as an eight-year phase-out of MHF. Such changes would affect both the Torrance refinery (now owned by PBF Energy) and the Wilmington Valero refinery, the only two California refineries to use MHF.

Council chambers were packed with residents of Redondo and nearby cities. A large number of refinery employees, many of whom live in Redondo, asked the Council to oppose a ban on MHF use.

Julie Hill, an engineer at the Torrance refinery, said she began as an “environmentalist with an agenda,” until she discovered the “amount of effort this company goes into keeping itself in check.”

“You want the facts, and I fear that you’re being misled by an organization that’s ignoring them,” Hill said.

“I’ve seen first-hand the science and rigor…that’s in the technology that is MHF,” said Julie Bowfinger, also an engineer at the Torrance refinery. “I would not live where I do and work at this facility if I did not know that safety was in everything we do.”

Further refinery proponents, such as David Socolofsky, stated that the refinery would likely close, eliminating hundreds of jobs, should an MHF ban go through.

Other residents were unconvinced.

“You’re only as good as your equipment, and your procedures,” said resident Eugene Solomon. “I have no doubt that the workers at the refinery have the very best intentions…but why would you tempt fate when you have the resources and the desire to update your equipment?”

Michael Karlovich, of PBF Energy, said PBF has invested $250 million to updating refinery equipment.

Councilwoman Laura Emdee agreed with resident testimony that many arguments against MHF were “fear-based” and said she would prefer the AQMD make its decisions based on fact-based reasoning. She seconded a motion by Councilman John Gran to follow a staff recommendation to support ongoing safety improvements and to “monitor AQMD discussions” — essentially, a wait-and-see approach.

Councilman Christian Horvath disagreed.

“I don’t think there are enough precautions or safety measures in the world…to prevent the ‘what if’ moment,” Horvath said. “The majority of money the city spends on an annual basis is on public safety. Why would we diverge from that perspective in terms of our policy setting?”

Horvath’s substitute motion to write a letter to the SCAQMD supporting a ban on MHF was unanimously passed by the City Council, to scattered applause of refinery opponents.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the agency endorsing a ban of Modified Hydrofluoric Acid. We regret the error. 


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