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Four Years Ago, "Near Miss" Explosion At Torrance Refinery Nearly Caused Potential Catastrophic Release Of Highly Corrosive MHF (Modified Hydrofluoric Acid); Only Two CA Refineries Use It; One Is Valero In Wilmington; Release Could Form Ground-Hugging Cloud With Possible Deaths Or Severe Health Impacts In Parts of LB; AQMD Is Deciding Whether To Phase It Out/Ban It Or Let Refineries Keep Using It With Add'l Safety Measures...While LB's Mayor/Councilmembers Mum is reader and advertiser supported. Support independent news in LB similar to the way people support NPR and PBS stations. We're not non-profit so it's not tax deductible but $49.95 (less than an annual dollar a week) helps keep us online.
(Feb 17, 2019, 10:40 p.m.) -- Monday Feb. 18 marks four years since an explosion at the then-Exxon-Mobil, now ToRC Torrance refinery launched an 80,000 pound piece of metal that landed barely five feet from a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of Modified Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF.) MFH consists of roughly 93-94% Hydrofluoric acid (HF), and HF is so corrosive that if accidentally released, it can cause death or permanent health injuries. Scientists say that on release, HF forms an expanding ground-hugging cloud that doesn't dissipate upward; it travels over distances, traveling in whatever direction the prevailing wind sends it, dissipating gradually over distance.

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

Scientists say that depending on the amount released, its concentration, distance and length of exposure, HF has the ability to kill or inflict long-term, possibly permanent injuries that go beyond burning/damaging skin and eyes; HF is absorbed into the body, meaning it can damage bones and internal organs.

The MHF used at the two refineries includes an additive, a modifier that dilutes the amount of HF, reducing it from 100% HF but leaving it at roughly 93-94% HF. MHF is used by only two refineries in all of CA: the ToRC refinery (owned by PBF Holdings Company, LLC,) at 3700 W. 190th St. in Torrance and the Valero refinery (owned by Ultramar) at 2402 E. Anaheim St. in Wilmington. Valero's refinery is next to Long Beach. It can store up to 55,000 gallons of MHF on site; the Torrance (ToRC) refinery can store 25,000 gallons [Source: Feb. 1, 2019 AQMD agenda item #25, PPT slide 1]

In the wake of the 2015 "near miss" that could have caused a release of MHF, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) (governing board members here) opened a proceeding into the matter. AQMD staff's position is that MHF provides some but uncertain benefits, at most a 35% benefit but likely less; using MHF instead of HF doesn't provide adequate safety for workers and community. [Source: AQMD Feb. 1, 2019 board meeting, staff PPT slide 19] AQMD staff says HF and MHF both create similar concerns, calling the ability of MHF to prevent formation of a vapor/aerosol cloud "highly uncertain"; noting the release of MHF will result in exposure to HF with same health effects; any "rainout" from MHF will be HF in liquid droplets; an HF vapor cloud will still form; and HF and MHF have the same hazards and medical treatment. [Source: AQMD Feb. 1, 2019 board meeting, staff PPT slide 22]

AQMD's governing board is approaching a decision on whether to adopt a formal rule (Rule 1410) requiring a phase-out/ban on the use of MHF (opposed by the refineries) OR instead to pursue a "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOU) favored by the refineries in which the refineries would agree to implement certain additional "safety/mitigation measures" and meet AQMD-specified "performance standards" intended to prevent a consequential MHF release from impacting the community.

At a Feb. 1, 2019 meeting of AQMD's governing board, AQMD staff delivered a PPT presentation that provided an overview of the issues. Some of its salient slides are below.

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

AQMD staff PPT, agenda item 25, Feb. 1, 2019

AQMD staff also indicated that an MHF release would strain the ability of nearby hospitals and medical personnel to handle large numbers of patients who would require specialized treatment for MHF injuries.

To view AQMD's accompanying Feb. 1 PPT presentation in full, click here.

If a majority of AQMD's governing board ultimately chooses an MOU, it would avoid a potential legal challenge to Rule 1410 (which could delay or prevent the Rule's implementation) but it would allow the refineries to continue using MHF. The MFH is delivered to the two refineries via tanker trucks that travel area freeways. That creates some quantum of risk that an otherwise routine traffic accident might cause an MHF release with potential life and health consequences for residents, businesses and drivers along the route and at some distance beyond.



The grassroots Torrance Refinery Action Alliance (TRAA), organized by southbay scientists, teachers and other community members after the 2015 "near miss," has urged AQMD to adopt Rule 1410 and phase out MHF within 4 years at both refineries. It opposes an MOU, calling the risks of MHF too great and likens the risk of an MHF release in the densely ;populated L.A. County area to a Bhopal-type mass casualty event and urges a phase-out of MHF.

A number of area elected officials have urged AQMD to phase-out/ban use of MHF. They include the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, Congressmembers Ted Lieu, Nanette Barragan and Maxine Waters, the office of CA Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Assemblyman Al Maratsuchi and the City Councils of Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach.


Both refineries have indicated they're amenable to an MOU allowing continued use of MHF. Supporting the companies' position are their unionized workers plus a number of supportive regional unions, along with business groups and non-profits (the latter acknowledging the refineries' financial support for their work.) At the Sept. 22 Wilmington hearing, a Valero management representative cited multiple mitigation measures he said were already in place -- including "water curtains," battery backups, and other containment and mitigation measures -- and said the company is willing to undertake further mitigation measures under an MOU.



In its Feb. 1 presentation, AQMD staff included a video clip from 1986 tests conducted by scientists to document and measure an HF release (before MHF was invented.) The tests showed that a golf-ball size hole (1.65") released 1,000 gallons of HF within 2 minutes. Once released and produced an HF ground hugging cloud that didn't disperse upward but rapidly expanded at breathing height (below 8 feet.) It traveled at the recorded wind speed of 18 feet per second, and under those conditions, in less than 10 minutes the corrosive toxic cloud traveled up to two miles. Within that distance, scientists measured HF at roughly double lethal levels.

AQMD acknowledged that this was an "unmitigated" release and the two refineries have certain "mitigation measures" on site, but noted that those systems, like others, can fail (as a different system did that caused the 2015 Torrance explosion and "near miss") and such failures can cascade in natural disasters (earthquakes) or with deliberate acts.

A video clip from the 1986 test shows the released HF forming the rapidly spreading, ground hugging traveling cloud. The video clip is included in on-demand VIDEO of AQMD staff's full Feb. 1 presentation, followed by public testimony, AQMD board discussion and voted action) which can be viewed here (Video of the 1986 HF test starts at 1:43:40.)

At a Sept. 22, 2018 AQMD board meeting on the MHF issue held in Wilmington (attended by over 800 people, no visible presence of LB Councilmembers or city staff), Dr. Ronald Koopman, PhD/PE (retired Manager/Sr. Scientist Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 36 years) testified that in the 1986 HF test, the ground hugging HF cloud's concentrations would mean likely deaths within 2.9 miles and serious health effects within 4.4 miles from the release site.

Dr. Koopman acknowledged that he's unaware of tests with data on releases of MHF (HF plus a modifier added to dilute it) and said he is unclear how much modification of HF's behavior the addition of the MFH modifier produces but said with a 6% concentration of modifier (such as that used at the Wilmington and Torrance refineries) he "would guess that would be a very small effect."

In contrast, the Torrance refinery contends 50% of MHF will "rainout" (fall to the ground.)

At the Feb. 1, 2019 AQMD board meeting, AQMD staff stated that based on its review of technical documents and discussions with the Torrance Refinery, it believes MHF provides some but uncertain benefits, at most a 35% benefit but likely less. Staff acknowledged that no testing has been conducted at current operating conditions (additive, concentration, pressure, and temperature) and most of the data about MHF isn't publicly available [see below chronology re technology developer]. AQMD staff stated that in its view, using MHF instead of HF doesn't provide adequate safety for workers and community. [Source: AQMD Feb. 1, 2019 board meeting, staff PPT slide 19]

During AQMD's Sept. 22, 2018 meeting in Wilmington, AQMD staff indicated it's been stymied in obtaining information regarding MHF's performance as a mitigation measure, providing the following chronology on a Power Point slide:

  • May 2018: Requested information from Honeywell
  • June 2018: Honeywell said permission needed from ExxonMobil (technology developer)
  • August 2018: ExxonMobil "does not consent to the public disclosure in any form (redacted or not)" and claims documents contain trade secret and confidential business information
  • Staff is still exploring options to make information public

    In its Feb. 1, 2019 presentation, AQMD staff indicated it believes that HF and MHF both create similar concerns, calling the "ability of MHF to prevent formation of a vapor/aerosol cloud "highly uncertain"; noting the release of MHF will result in exposure to HF with same health effects; any "rainout" from MHF will be HF in liquid droplets; an HF vapor cloud will still form; and HF and MHF have the same hazards and medical treatment. [Source: AQMD Feb. 1, 2019 board meeting, staff PPT slide 22]

    AQMD staff indicated it's possible to convert the two refineries to use a less dangerous chemical -- sulfuric acid -- although its use would entail more truck trips. In 2017, a firm hired by the ToRC refinery estimated conversion would cost $600 million plus $300 million for post-processing equipment. AQMD staff considers those figures high and contends (with caveats on the need to study the feasibility of reusing some current equipment) that the cost would be roughly $300 million for a converted alkylation facility, not $600 million. AQMD staff indicated the Valero Wilmington refinery didn't offer a conversion cost estimate but has indicated it would face space constraints.

    At the Feb. 1, 2019 AQMD meeting, L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn (whose Supervisorial district includes Long Beach and the southbay) opposed a motion by AQMD Boardmember Larry McCallon (Councilman/Mayor, City of Highland) that would have directed staff to pursue an MOU (continuing to allow MHF.) Supervisor Hahn, participating in her first AQMD board meeting, said she considers the risk simply too great and declined to support the MOU motion. She said that although she traditionally sides with organized labor, she doesn't consider credible what she described as unspoken/implied threats by the refineries to close their facilities and eliminate jobs if MHF were phased out.

    Supervisor Hahn joined an AQMD board majority in supporting a substitute motion by board chair Dr. William Burke, which carried 9-4, directing AQMD staff to engage in further discussions with both the refineries and with community groups over the next 90 days on both a potential Rule and a potential MOU and then present the results and its recommendations to AQMD's Refinery Committee (five of AQMD's 13 board members) whose members in previous meetings have been split on how best to proceed.

    The gathering storm

    On August 18, 2017, Valero Wilmington (part of Ultramar) submitted a sternly worded letter in the AQMD Rule 1410 proceeding, questioning the need for any AQMD action, stating in 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.

    The staff presentation suggests their rationale for pursuing a ban is based on worst-case scenario offsite consequence modeling,,,,This is an insufficient basis for several reasons. First, there is nothing new about the Wilmington Refinery's offsite consequence modeling; we suspect the same is true for the Torrance refinery. It is completely arbitrary for the District to conclude in 2004 that the Alky REVAP project to be installed in the Wilmington refinery met the District's objectives for protection of human health and safety, only to reach a different conclusion in 2017 on the basis of the same information...

    Moreover, ay determination to ban the use of a chemical on the basis that WCS [worst case scenario] modeling reflects a hypothetical potential to result in offsite consequences is plainly arbitrary.

    We again urge the District to consider all relevant information and not rush headlong into an action that is unnecessary and may have significant adverse consequences.

    Valero Wilmington has since indicated that, like ToRC, it's amenable to discussing an MOU offering increased safety measures as an alternative to a Rule.

    Representatives of the two refineries have both said their use of MHF is safe and oppose an AQMD rule/phase-out/ban. In April 2018, the TORC Torrance refinery submitted a 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."

    On August 22, 2017, the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce submitted written comments in the Rule 1410 proceeding. (The LB Chamber's website lists Valero Wilmington as a member of its "Chairman's Circle" at highest "Diamond" level and indicates Valero Wilmington also has a seat on the Chamber's governing board.) In an August 22, 2017 letter, LB Chamber President/CEO Randy Gordon wrote 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.

    According to Schremp, a ban could decrease Southern California's local supply of gasoline for a period of at least two years. These incremental impacts to gasoline costs for consumers and businesses could mean billions of dollars in additional, higher costs. California's working families and local businesses cannot afford these dramatically higher costs, especially on top of price increases resulting from existing and pending mandates, taxes, and fees.

    I am also concerned that potentially reducing refinery output will force us to import our fuels from outside the state -- which dramatically increases global air emissions. An analysis by Stillwater and Associates from the July 6th California Energy Commission Meeting found that, because of California's geographic and infrastructural isolation, a ban would necessitate offshore refiners to "produce the products and ship them half way around the world to the California market. As a result, average spot prices could rise 25 cpg [cents per gallon] more, and ultimately the California consumer would pay the price."

    While we are all concerned about safety, we should acknowledge the lead the Governor has taken with these issues which have already resulted in increased safety regulations for all refineries that are the strongest in the nation.

    I strongly encourage Board Members and staff to analyze what these impacts mean for our economy. was to our knowledge alone among LB media outlets in reporting this developing issue in detail last year (here, here, here and here and here).

    On April 20, 2018, the politically powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor -- whose PAC endorsement is eagerly sought by candidates seeking re-election or higher offices -- submitted written comments opposing a ban on MHF. "There has been no finding that MHF presents a risk to communities surrounding the refineries," wrote the group's president, Rusty Hicks. His letter can be viewed in full here.

    A list of the multiple parties submitting comment letters on Rule 1410 can be viewed here.

    Roughly 500 people attended an AQMD meeting held in Torrance, overflowing the Torrance City Council Chamber and accommodated in a special event tent outside.

    April 28, 2018. photo

    April 28, 2018. photo

    The grassroots Torrance Refinery Action Alliance (TRAA) said in April it had collected over 11,000 petition signatures (at that time) from southbay areas supporting a phase-out/ban on MHF.

    April 28, 2018 Torrance AQMD meeting, photo

    April 28, 2018 Torrance AQMD meeting, photo

    Refinery workers, organized by their unions, likewise had a sizable presence.

    April 28, 2018, Torrance AQMD meeting. photo

    In September, over 800 people attended the AQMD meeting on the issue in LB-adjacent Wilmington. TRAA again had a sizable showing and presented the thousands of petition signatures to the AQMD board.

    Sept. 22, 2018 Wilmington AQMD meeting. photo

    Sept. 22, 2018 Wilmington AQMD meeting. photo

    And again at the Wilmington hearings, refinery employees showed up in force to oppose a phase-out/ban on MHF.

    Sept. 22, 2018 Wilmington AQMD meeting. LBREPORT.colm photo

    Sept. 22, 2018 Wilmington AQMD meeting. photo

    Where are LB's Mayor and policy-setting City Councilmembers on this?

    To date the Mayor and City Council of Long Beach -- L.A. County's second largest city -- have to our knowledge said nothing public and taken no voted position on the issue. To our knowledge, no Councilmembers have even told their potentially impacted constituents about it in their Council "newsletters" or on their social network channels (if you have evidence to the contrary, please let us know.)

    In September 2018, SCAQMD Media Relations Mgr. Sam Atwood told "With regard to the city manager of Long Beach, they are on the mailing list for our Rule 1410 activities however I don't know whether we have had any direct contact with them on this rule proposal."

    Since at least 2017, SQAMD has had a "working group" discussing development of proposed Rule 1410. The working group member roster is visible at this link and indicates it included no representatives of the City of Long Beach or any Long Beach grassroots or neighborhood groups. However one of the "working group" members -- representing the City of Los Angeles (Office of Petroleum and Natural Gas Administration) -- is Uduak-Joe Ntuk (elected in 2018 to LBCC's governing Board of Trustees.) spotted Mr. Ntuk at the April 2018 and September 2018 AQMD meetings on the issue; at the April meeting, Mr. Ntuk politely declined comment, noting that his involvement is in the capacity of a representative of the City of Los Angeles.


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