Residents worry about safety near a Torrance refinery

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The Torrance refinery rises like a gleaming metal castle next to a residential area just off Crenshaw Boulevard, south of the 405 Freeway. The refinery’s history goes back to 1929, around the time the automobile started taking off.

The refinery provides 10 percent of gasoline for the entire state of California; it’s a boutique blend of gas only made in the Golden State and a handful of places around the world.

But some South Bay residents are worried the refinery could lead to disaster if it were to accidentally release modified hydrofluoric acid, a chemical used in the gas-making process. They want the acid banned.

Retired scientist Sally Hayati helped form the grassroots group, Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. They group’s been gathering signatures on petitions and canvassing neighborhoods to get the word out about their efforts to get all forms of hydrofluoric acid banned from the area by 2020.

Hayati said even the modified version of hydrofluoric acid could form a deadly vapor cloud.

“They like us to believe that their emergency systems to deal with an accident would keep us safe,” Hayati said. “But I’ve done an analysis that even if 90 percent of that acid were knocked down by their emergency systems or drained away by their acid dumping systems that we would still be left with a three-mile death zone.”

Hayati said if all of the modified hydrofluoric acid at the refinery were released in one day, it could travel up to 15 miles, all the way to downtown Los Angeles. Hayati said nearly a quarter of a million people could be in danger of both the Torrance Refining Company and Wilmington’s Valero refinery. These are the only two refineries left in the state the still use modified hydrofluoric acid.

Unlike sulfuric acid, which is used at other California refineries, hydrofluoric acid can vaporize. Exposure can cause acid burns, leach away the calcium in bones and in some cases, lead to death by robbing the body’s organs of calcium it needs to function.

“Every time I hear what I think is a siren, I’m thinking, ‘Is that the refinery?” long-time Torrance resident Catherine Luciano said. “I’m retired now so I’m home a lot and so it’s on my mind all the time.”

The Torrance refinery had a near miss in 2015 when explosion sent a large shard of metal precariously close to the acid tank. At the time, Exxon Mobil owned it, but shortly after sold the refinery to PBF Energy, which said the circle around the refinery on planning maps — Hayati’s group dubs the “kill zone” — have been taken out of context.

Betsy Brien, a spokeswoman for PBF Energy’s Torrance Refining Company, called that characterization unfair. She said the circles are simply for emergency planning purposes.

“We’re people, too, and just because we’re behind that gate — we have 600 employees and 500 contractors that work there,” Brien said. “And we go to work. We want to work safely and we want to go home safely and just be a good member of the community”

Brien said switching to sulfuric acid would be prohibitively expensive and would increase emissions because it takes much more sulfuric acid — roughly 1,000 truckloads more per month — to create the same amount of gasoline as with modified hydrofluoric acid.

Refinery expert David Hackett of Stillwater Associates in Huntington Beach, whose company has consulted at the Torrance refinery, said the Torrance Refining Company has some room to expand and add sulfuric acid tanks. But he said the Valero refinery in Wilmington has a smaller footprint, built upward, with no room for expansion.

Regardless, Hackett said just because the Torrance refinery is older doesn’t mean it’s outdated. He compared the refinery to a classic B-52 bombers used by the military.

“Those were built in the late 50s and the 60s. They’re older than the pilots, but they keep flying. And they keep flying because the Air Force continues to upgrade them,” Hackett said. “That’s what happens with oil refineries today. Their owners continue to upgrade them.”

Hackett said with the environmental regulations in place today, we’ll never see another refinery built in California.

That leaves the Torrance refinery and others to crank out the boutique gas only California uses.

In the meantime, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is considering whether to ban modified hydrofluoric acid in the region. The agency recently reached the conclusion that the refinery didn’t prove the safeguards in place are enough to contain a catastrophic release of the acid.

Philip Fine oversees the rule-making process at the AQMD, which means he’s in charge of proposed Rule 1410, which would ban the use of HF. Fine said they’ve been holding planning meetings with all parties involved.

“Anytime we pass a rule that’s going to impose restrictions or requirements on businesses, there’s costs associated, but what’s always our first priority is protecting public health,” Fine said.

Torrance Refining Company disagrees with the AQMD’s conclusion, calling it “premature.” It is in the process of responding. The AQMD’s board could consider the ban as soon as early next year.

(Photo: Torrance Refining Company/Susan Valot)