AQMD Committee Majority Seeks "More Information," Declines At This Point To Recommend Phase-Out Of Modified Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF) At Wilmington Valero and Torrance TORC Refineries; Expert Testifies Accidental Release Would Create Ground-Hugging Vapor Cloud Creating Possible Serious Injuries/Deaths Depending On Distance/Duration/Winds; Committee's Next Meeting May Be In LB-Adjacent Wilmington
|(April 28, 2018, text added April 30) -- In an ongoing proceeding with emerging public safety implications for LB neighborhoods, three members of SCAQMD's five-member Refinery Committee said they want additional information from AQMD staff on possible alternatives and "mitigation" (measures generally supported by the refinery owners) and declined at this point to recommend that AQMD's full Board adopt Rule 1410 to phase out the use of highly injurious and potentially lethal Modified Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF) at the Valero Wilmington refinery and PBF Energy Torrance (TORC) refinery (formerly owned by Exxon-Mobil.)
Valero Wilmington (2402 E. Anaheim St. on the LB border west of the 103 freeway) and TORC (along Crenshaw Blvd. between Del Amo Blvd. and 190th St.) are the only refineries in the state of CA that use MHF. All others use sulfuric acid in the refining process.
Instead, the Committee directed AQMD staff to provide the Committee with further information regarding a proposed rule or an enforceable agreement [a Memorandum of Understanding or MOU] to "mitigate" the risk from an accidental release of MHF through a "multi-tiered" approach to "further mitigate the risk" of an accidental release. Tier 1 would include enhancements to existing mitigations and add some automated mitigations (4 years); Tier 2 would require fully automated mitigation measures (6-8 years); and Tier 3 would include what is described as "fail-safe" operation." .
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The Committee heard agendized testimony by Dr. Craig Merlic, Professor in UCLA's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, who described the health effects from exposure to MHF [and HF] compared to sulfuric acid. Professor Merlic said an HF [and MHF] release would create a vapor cloud that doesn't rise (which would allow atmospheric dispersion) but instead hugs the ground and would travel basically uncontrolled wherever the prevailing winds take it. He said that from a human health standpoint, HF and MHF are nearly the same; they're both highly corrosive [the chemical's uses include etching glass] and exposure to MHF or HF can damage eyes, lungs, other internal organs and even bones as it is absorbed by breathing and through the skin and is basically a "systemic poison."
Prof. Merlic said MHF can't simply be washed off and requires trained medical attention and a specific chemical antidote. He said MHF can cause serious, sometimes long-term injuries and in some cases can bring death. Prof. Merlic indicated that sulfuric acid, while still corrosive, carries lesser magnitude health risks than MHF.
After roughly five hours of presentations and public testimony pro and con, the AQMD Committee took no voted action, but referred the issue for additional information from AQMD staff to be presented at the Committee's next meeting within 90 days. During the hearing, AQMD Board chair Dr. William Burke suggested that the Committee hold its next meeting in Wilmington, site of Valero's refinery on the LB-border on Anaheim St. [west of the 103 freeway.]
AQMD Committee member Rolling Hills Mayor Pro Tem Judith Mitchell said she favors a phase/out-ban, and believes the risks are too great and doesn't want the consequences on her conscience. Commitee member Mayor Larry McCallon of Highland (in San Bernardino County) likened the risks to those accepted in traveling on freeways and on airplanes and opposed a phase-out/ban. Two Committee members, Dr. Clark Parker and Dr. Joseph Lyou variously indicated they were unprepared at present to support a phase out and sought "additional information" before offering recommendations to the full AQMD board.
AQMD Board chair Dr. William Burke questioned the advisability of a phase-out/ban without explicitly saying so. Had AQMD staff done any testing to determine the extent to which Modified HF is less damaging compared to HF? AQMD staff said no, but added that it could only publicly discuss data now publicly available because certain information about MHF remains proprietary with its manufacturers. That led Burke and some Committee members to direct AQMD staff to ask the MHF manufacturer to permit public release of proprietary information on the issue (presumably to see its harmful chemical properties could be further mitigated.). Burke also noted that HF is used elsewhere besides refineries and suggested AQMD might want to discuss a more widespread analysis of those uses; AQMD staff replied that the amounts used in glass etching and some computer hardware manufacturing operations were small compared to refinery uses.
AQMD Board Chair Burke indicated he would be amenable to recommending a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in which the refineries would agree to certain "mitigation" measures for their continued use of MHF...and indicated he'd accept having one refinery convert to sulfuric acid while the other continued using MHF (although he didn't say which one, Torrance or LB-adjacent Wilmington.)
The AQMD's five-member Refinery Committee can recommend but not decide the issue. At some point after the Committee's next meeting (which may be in Wilmington), the Committee may make some recommendation(s) to the full 13-member AQMD Board. The AQMD's 13 policy-setting governing board members are listed here
AQMD staff estimated that converting the Wilmington and Torrance refineries to sulfuric acid would cost their operators could be roughly $300-$600 million. AQMD staff said an estimate by Burns & McConnell [contracted by TORC] was $600 million IF a post-alkylation unit and post processing equipment is included. AQMD staff says post processing replacement may not be needed, in which the is estimated at $300 million. [AQMD staff says conversion of an HF unit to sulfuric acid "must include a thorough review of the entire unit in order to determine if any equipment can be re-used..." AQMD staff further notes that under the new "Tax Cut & Jobs Act, a "full expensing" provisions allows a 100% deduction of the cost of investments from taxable income in every year for up to five years. AQMD staff estimated the cost of sulfuric acid alkylation is roughly $300 million, amortized over five years.
AQMD staff acknowledged that conversion would involve some down-time/supply reductions but said these could staggered to have less of an impact than unplanned events. AQMD staff also said converting at the Valero Wilmington plant posed additional challenges due to space constraints.
AQMD launched the proceedings after a February 18, 2015 explosion at the Torrance (then-Exxon-Mobil owned) refinery caused a "near miss" when a piece of equipment -- weighing 40 tons -- landed within five feet of the refinery's MHF acid settler. (For details, see U.S. Chemical Safety Hazard Investigation Board's investigation visible here..
Following the 2015 explosion, grassroots residents formed TRAA, and its now-President Dr. Sally Hayati [Ph.D/USC EE Department, BS/MS Degrees/UC Berkeley; retired Aerospace Corp, El Segundo] joined with seven other scientists (who now comprise TRAA's Science Advisory panel) and researched scientific data and MHF safely claims. TRAA cited the data in demanding a replacement for MHF, and pressed AQMD to conduct a study into MHF alternatives which in turn led (in late 2016) to AQMD starting its now-ongoing rulemaking process.
Among those now on record (via letters) supporting a phase-out/ban on MHF are the L.A. County Board of Supervisors (unanimously), state Senator [and US Senate candidate] Kevin de Leon (D, L.A.), Assemblyman Al Maratsuchi (D, southbay), Assemblyman David Hadley (R, southbay). Congressmembers Ted Lieu (D, southbay/WLA) and Nanette Barragan (D, southbay/Carson) and the cities of Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach. A majority of the Torrance City Council (home to the TORC refinery) stopped short of supporting a phase-out, instead urging continued research for alternative solutions such as solid acid and liquid iontic catalyst processes; two Torrance Councilmembers strongly dissented and sent letters supporting a phase-out.
Thus far, the City of Long Beach has taken no position publicly...although the Wilmington Valero refinery sits on LB's western border. To date, no incumbent Long Beach Councilmember have agendized the issue for public discussion and possible Council action. In the recently concluded April 2018 election cycle, three LB Council incumbents and Mayor Robert Garcia were re-elected. However WLB/Wrigley/Cal Hts area 7th dist. incumbent Roberto Uranga. faces a June 5 runoff against Jared Milrad, and ELB 5th district incumbent Stacy Mungo faces a June runoff against former LB Harbor Commissioner Rich Dines. Last year, Councilwoman Mungo hired Steve Napolitano, a Redondo Beach Councilman, as her Chief of Staff (and his name is now separately visible on some of Mungo's campaign materials.) In March 2018, the Redondo Beach City Council voted unanimously to support a phase out of MHF. .
Roughly 500 people attended the hearing, overflowing the Torrance City Council Chamber and accommodated in a special event tent outside.
Many attendees were grassroots residents, alerted to the issue by the grassroots Torrance Refinery Action Alliance (TRAA). The group says it has collected over 11,000 petition signatures (thus far) from southbay areas supporting a phase-out/ban.
TRAA president Hayati compared the consequences of an MHF release in the densely populated area to mass deaths and injuries from the Bhopal, India leak of a different highly toxic gas. Dr. Hayati said that until the 2015 Torrance refinery explosion, residents locally weren't told about the full risks of MHF. Dr. Hayati said AQMD missed previous opportunities to phase out MHF and it was now time for AQMD to "get it right" and phase out use of the harardous chemical once and for all.
The grassroots TRAA has independently produced what it calls "injury and death maps" noting that it believes the EPA's "Worst Case Scenario" maps "understate dangers of modified hydrofluoric acid (MHF)" The grassroots group's maps and scenarios include parts of Long Beach. To view TRAA's grassroots prepared materials, click here.
Refinery employees also showed up in force to oppose a phase-out/ban on MHF. Some wore worker coveralls or distinctive colored shirts in a display organized by their multiple allied unions.
Following the hearing, TRAA President Hayati commented to LBREPORT.com: "It is a partial victory that the refineries have agreed to improve their HF mitigation systems...This would not have happened if South Bay community members hadn't fought forf safety improvements. But this can only be an interim step. Our goal is replace MHF with a safe alternative within four years." A Committee majority sought further information from AQMD staff on the extent to which, if at all, the risks of MHF might be reduced (stopping short a formal rule directing the two refineries to phase out use of the chemical.)
AQMD staff told the Committee that Modified HF -- with modifier used at about 6% -- might incrementally reduce harm compared to standard HF by -- at most -- an estimated 30%. (Adding additional modifier reduces the effectiveness of the HF in the refining process.) AQMD staff said it considered the amount the reduction from the modifier inadequate and thus proposed Rule 1410's phase out in one of two options: Option A would be no longer than five years; Option B would be no longer than 6-8 years.
Representatives of the two refineries said their use of MHF is safe, stressed that there have been no off-site releases of MHF from either of the two refineries and opposed an AQMD rule implementing a phase-out/ban. The TORC Torrance refinery submitted an April 18, 2018 letter stating in pertinent part: "Our industry tacks Process Safety Events, even very minor ones, and we have now operated for more than nine months without any such events...In spite of a small band of activists' misinformation campaign that mischaracterizes or Alkylation unit, our workforce remains committed to safely and reliably producing the clean transportation fuels that Southern California citizens demand for day-to-day mobility." A TORC Torrance refinery rep said his firm submitted written materials citing over sixty instances of inaccurate statements by AQMD staff; AQMD staff responded that it had just received the letter a day earlier, denied that AQMD staff had made inaccurate statements and said it would refute each point in subsequent correspondence.
Valero Wilmington (part of Ultramar, a Valero company) submitted an August 18, 2017 letter stating in pertinent part:
...Valero reiterates that the District has yet to establish a need for any action at all, much use a complete ban on the use of the very technology that the District aggressively sought to implement fewer than fifteen years ago.
At the April 27 hearing, both refineries indicated they are more amenable to mitigation measures that, they said, could provide greater safety (and would avoid a rulemaking and phase-out.) A representative of Wilmington Valero explicitly stated his willingness to sign an MOU that would implement a number of mitigation measures.
Multiple union reps sided with refinery management in opposing a phase-out/ban. Union workers, some dressed in refinery coveralls, filled seats in large numbers as their union reps arguing that requiring a conversion to sulfuric acid was unwise, unnecessary...and implied it could lead one or both refineries to close down entirely, costing jobs. Some warned against "chasing additional jobs out of California"; others charged the real goal of MHF opponents was to shut down the refineries entirely.
TRAA reps strongly denied seeking to close down the refineries, saying their issue is with MHF, not the refineries.
During the April 27 hearing, the refinery reps didn't explicitly threaten closure of their plants although some AQMD Committee members implied that conversion to using sulfuric acid might encounter hurdles in obtaining permits.
The LB Area Chamber of Commerce (where Valero is a member of the "Chairman's Circle" and also has a seat on the Chamber's governing board) submitted an August 22, 2017 letter signed by Chamber President/CEO Randy Gordon stating in pertinent part:
After viewing the July 6th California Energy Commission presentation made by Gordon Schremp, Senior Fuel Analyst for the California Energy Commission, I have concerns about the impacts of this proposed ban for California's consumers, our regional economy, and to global air emissions..
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