Refining the refinery: Last year’s ExxonMobil explosion could lead to big changes at Torrance plant
by Ryan McDonald
Eighteen months after an explosion hit the oil refinery in Torrance, shockwaves are still being felt.
The blast energized Torrance residents, prompting families to organize into dedicated advocacy groups. Now, with regulators and politicians paying increasingly close attention, critical changes to the refining process at the facility — ExxonMobil at the time of the blast, now Torrance Refining Co. — may be on the horizon.
Drawing particular attention is the refinery’s use of modified hydrofluoric acid. While effective in the gasoline production process, hydrofluoric acid is also dangerous, and regulators examining the facility have indicated that the February 2015 incident could have been far worse had the explosion breached the acid storage area, threatening residents all across the South Bay.
On Monday, prior to a meeting of the regional agency tasked with enforcing federal and state air pollution rules, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, residents spoke out regarding the fears that have become a regular part of their lives since the blast.
“Each night as I tuck my two- and three-year-old into bed, and wonder if this will be a bad emissions night,” said Maureen Mauk, a Torrance resident and co-founder of Families Lobbying Against Refinery Exposures (FLARE), one of the activist groups to spring up in the wake of the explosion.
Elected officials and candidates from both parties made clear that they shared residents’ concerns about the use of the chemical.
“The Torrance refinery must prioritize public safety over profits,” said Al Muratsuchi, the Democratic nominee for a local seat in the state assembly, who has been endorsed by FLARE and other environmental groups. “The use of modified hydrochloric acid threatens hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Assemblyman David Hadley, Muratsuchi’s opponent in the November race, was also present at the meeting, and similarly urged an end to the use of the chemical.
“This facility really should not be relying on hydrofluoric acid,” Hadley said in an interview. “The refinery may not have been in a densely populated area when it was built, but it is now.”
Hydrofluoric acid, or HF, is a chemical catalyst employed at the Torrance refinery used in the alkylation process for the production of high-octane fuel, part of the blend that ultimately winds up in gas station pumps. While it is more efficient than competing catalysts, scientists say it is also far more dangerous.
If vaporized, as could have occurred during the accident last year, the acid could form a low-lying chemical cloud that would travel for miles. Such a cloud “can cause severe damage to the respiratory system, skin, and bones of those who are exposed, potentially resulting in death,” according to a report, issued earlier this year by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in response to the Torrance incident.
Use of hydrofluoric acid at the Torrance facility has been controversial for years. It spawned legal action from the city in the 1990s, and lead to a consent decree under which facility operators agreed to include additives that decreased the risk of vapor cloud formation. But the additives diminished the effectiveness of the chemical in the refining process, and the concentration of the “modified hydrofluoric acid” has gradually crept back up since the consent decree.
Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), also present at Monday’s meeting, said that the local community had been “hoodwinked” by the gradually increasing concentration, and that lack of transparency from refinery operators on the topic has left residents in the dark.
“Is this refinery safe? We just don’t know, and that is very troubling,” Lieu said.
Community activists estimate that the blend currently employed at the refinery contains at least 90 percent hydrofluoric acid. Such a concentration, they argue, still poses a severe threat to residents.
“We need to eliminate hydrofluoric acid,” Dr. Sally Hayati, an engineer and a leader with the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. “Modified HF is HF.”
Last year’s explosion put the facility under close regulatory scrutiny from federal agencies. Kay Lawrence, chief of the emergency prevention and preparedness branch at the Environmental Protection Agency’s San Francisco office, said that in addition to the federal chemical safety board, the EPA has visited the site twice since the explosion, and is preparing a final report due out later this year.
Lawrence emphasized that the problems identified in the chemical safety board study report occurred while ExxonMobil was running the refinery, not under current owners PBF Energy, a New Jersey-based company that took over the facility in June. Nonetheless, under federal law, any oil refinery with a history of accidents is subject to the highest level of scrutiny from regulators.
“If they’ve had an accident, even if they’re out in the middle of the Nevada desert, then they’re obligated to be more restrictively managed,” Lawrence said.
Neither community members nor government officials have suggested halting operations at the refinery. Instead, they would prefer to see the use of a different alkylation catalyst, like sulfuric acid.
A long-awaited report released Friday from the AQMD and Norton Engineering Consultants examined alternatives to the use of modified hydrofluoric acid, including sulfuric acid. The chemical properties of sulfuric acid mean that, unlike hydrofluoric acid, it does not pose the risk of toxic cloud formation.
The report indicated that while sulfuric acid is a commercially viable alternative, it would impose potentially significant costs on the refinery. The report estimated that conversion to a sulfuric acid facility would cost about $100 million. Executives from PBF told the Daily Breeze that costs could be far higher, reaching as much as $300 million.
Muratsuchi welcomed the Norton report, saying it added to the case for phasing out hydrofluoric acid. The former assemblyman introduced a plan Monday that, in addition to banning hydrofluoric acid, would improve air quality monitoring at the facility and enhance notification of residents when issues emerge.
In an interview following the AQMD meeting, Muratsuchi acknowledged the differing cost estimates and the important contribution that the refinery makes to the region’s economy. But he noted that, along with the Valero refinery in Wilmington, the Torrance refinery is one of only two in the state to employ hydrofluoric acid.
“What we do know is that all other refineries use sulfuric acid except for Torrance and Valero,” Muratsuchi said. “Not only can it be done, but it is being done.”
Asked for comment about the report, PBF Energy provided a statement that downplayed the danger posed by existing operations.
“The modified hydrofluoric acid unit at the Torrance refinery is one of the most sophisticated units, with many layers of protection for added safety,” the statement said.
PBF agreed with regulators that hydrofluoric and sulfuric acid represent the only two possibilities for alkylation, but said that “No refinery had ever switched from one technology to the other.”
Among the challenges associated with conversion is that a far greater volume of sulfuric acid is necessary to produce the same amount of refined fuel. Converting could mean enhanced truck or rail traffic at the site to bring the sulfuric acid. (Activists say it may be possible to generate at least some of the catalyst on site).
But public comment at the AQMD meeting indicated that residents feel far more comfortable with the risk of increased truck traffic than with threat posed by continued use of modified hydrofluoric acid. While speaking, resident Arnold Goldstein held up a gas mask that he said is issued to Israeli citizens for use during terrorist threats.
“This will not protect me against HF. It will not protect anyone against HF,” Goldstein said.
State regulators’ next more is unclear. The AQMD came under fire earlier this year when elected officials from Orange County selected Dwight Robinson, a Republican and Lake Forest City Councilmember, to replace the outgoing Miguel Pulido, Democrat and mayor of Santa Ana, shifting the partisan balance of the agency’s governing board. Robinson had spoken out about the need for regulators to be more attuned to the needs of businesses and, less than a week after he joined, the district board forced out Barry Wallerstein, who had served as executive officer for the previous 19 years.
At the legislative level, Hadley estimates that he has spent more time on this issue than any other during his term in the assembly. He said he has met with FLARE and the refinery action alliance, as well as homeowners groups, refinery employees, and executives from both ExxonMobil and PBF.
Hadley said he remains firmly opposed to the use of hydrofluoric acid at the Torrance refinery, but is also mindful of the complexities of the issue. During the latest legislative session, Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) introduced a bill that would have restricted the use of hydrofluoric acid at plants in residential areas. The bill, AB 1759, would have affected plants storing 250 gallons or more of the acid, which many businesses called far too low. It died in committee, and Hadley did not support it.
“This was not a well-advised piece of legislation,” Hadley said. “No one really knows for sure, but would have closed hundreds or thousands of plants. It was bringing work of sledge hammer to a process that could have used a scalpel.”