This Saturday AQMD Committee Will Hold Public Meeting On Whether To Continue To Allow Or Phase-Out/Ban Highly Corrosive MHF Used By Only Two Refineries In CA; In Catastrophic Release, It Could Produce Mass Casualties (People Killed Or Left With Long-Term Health Damages); One Of The Two Refineries (Valero Wilmington) Is Next To LB...And Tanker Trucks Bring The MFH Using Area Fwys
(June 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.) -- On Saturday June 22, 2019, the South Coast Air Quality Management District's Refinery Committee (five regional area electeds including L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn) will hold a public meeting at the agency's Diamond Bar headquarters and may move closer to a fateful decision on whether to continue to allow or to ban/phase out the use of highly corrosive Modified Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF) used by only two refineries in all of CA. One of them -- the Valero Wilmington refinery (owned by Ultramar) is at 2402 E. Anaheim St. in Wilmington, basically next to Long Beach. The other is the Torrance (ToRc) refinery, formerly owned/operated by Exxon/Mobil, now owned/operated by PBF Holdings Co.
If MHF were released in a catastrophic event (earthquake, explosion, or other scenarios), scientists have told AQMD that it would likely create a ground-hugging cloud traveling over distances in a basically uncontrollable path. Within certain distances and depending on factors including prevailing wind, quantity released, exposure duration and temperature, the result could be mass casualties with thousands of people killed or suffering permanent health damages. (Previous LBREPORT.com coverage here and here and here.)
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MHF has other effects beyond burning/damaging skin and eyes; HF is absorbed into the body, meaning it can damage bones and internal organs.
As used by the two refineries, MHF consists of 93%-94% HF plus an added modifier. AQMD staff presentations have indicated that the LB-adjacent Valero refinery 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]
Tanker trucks regularly bring deliveries of MHF to both refineries. The trucks carrying the MHF travel along various area adjoining or in relatively close proximity to multiple neighborhoods.
Over the past four years, no member(s) of Long Beach's policy-setting City Council have scheduled ny publicly agendized discussions or taken a voted position on whether AQMD should allow the continused use of MHF or adopt a rule for a phase-out/ban in our area.
LB Mayor Robert Garcia (who doesn't set policy but makes recommendations and with Council approval currently has a ten-member taxpayer-paid staff) hasn't made any public recommendations on the LB-impacting issue.
On Feb. 18, 2015 a "near miss" explosion at the Torrance refinery launched an 80,000 pound piece of metal that landed a few feet from a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of MHF and could have caused a catastrophic release of MHF. The Feb. 2015 event led the South Coast Air Quality Management to consider adopting a Rule (1410) that would require a phase out of MHF locally. AQMD staff says the refineries could convert to a safer chemical at a cost AQMD staff estimates would be sizable but believes is manageable by the companies.
A number of area elected officials have urged AQMD to phase-out/ban the refineries continued 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.
A well-organized but thus far mainly southbay-focused grassroots group, the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance (TRAA), also urges a phase-out/ban the continue use of MHF at both refineries. TRAA recently produced and webposted the advocacy video below in advance of the June 22 AQMD Refinery Committee meeting. here).
Valero Wilmington and the Torrance refinery oppose an AQMD rule phasing-out/ending MHF use here. They have offered to negotiate a "Memorandum of Understanding" with AQMD that would let them continue using MHF subject to negotiating some type(s) of additional safety measures and "mitigation-if-released" actions. AQMD staff says such measures (that would have to negotiated and presumably mutually agreed to) could be based on "performance standards" written in a way meant to prevent a consequential MHF release from impacting the community.)
MFH consists of roughly 93-94% Hydrofluoric acid (HF). Scientists and AQMD staff have indicated in AQMD proceedings that on release, HF has been shown in a scientific study to form an expanding ground-hugging cloud. It doesn't dissipate upward; instead it travels over distances in whichever direction the prevailing wind might send it and dissipating gradually over distance. The Power Point slides below are from AQMD staff:
During a Feb. 1, 2019 AQMD Board meeting, AQMD staff included a video clip (below) 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 (likely to cause death) 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.
The 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 the Feb. 1, 2019 AQMD governing board meeting, AQMD staff delivered a PPT presentation that provided an overview of the issues. Some of its salient slides are below.
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.
A few months eaarlier at a Sept. 22, 2018 AQMD board meeting in Wilmington (attended by over 800 people with no visible presence or participation 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.)
AQMD staff's position has been that MHF provides some but uncertain benefits over pure HF, at most a 35% benefit but likely less, and thus 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]
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 indicated it's been stymied in obtaining information regarding MHF's performance as a mitigation measures.
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] It indicated that 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]
At a Sept. 22, 2018 meeting of the Refinery Committee hearing held in Wilmington (reported by LBREPORT.com here), a Valero representative cited multiple mitigation measures currently 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.
The grassroots TRAA argues that mass casualty industrial accidents (Bhopal pesticide plant) occurred despite company-touted safety measures and some scenarios (tsunami damaging Fukushima nuclear power plant) simply weren't anticipated by planners.
Opposing a phase-out/ban and supporting the companies' position favoring an MOU are their unionized workers plus various supportive and politically active regional unions, as well as some local business groups and non-profits (the latter acknowledging financial support from the refineries for their non-profit activities.)
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 (most recently now-state Senator Lena Gonzalez) -- 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 then-president, now-newly elected Chair of the CA Democratic Party, Rusty Hicks. (His 2018 letter on behalf of the LB Labor Federation can be viewed in full here.
A list of the multiple parties submitting comment letters on Rule 1410 can be viewed here.
On August 18, 2017, Valero Wilmington (part of Ultramar) submitted a sternly worded letter to AQMD 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.
Neither refinery has publicly stated that it would shut down if AQMD adopts a rule phasing out MHF, but their workers' unions have invited that inference by voicing concern for their jobs. If AQMD were to adopt a rule phasing out use of MHF, the refineries might pursue a court challenge to challenge and try to block the rule
At a Feb. 1, 2019 meeting of the full AQMD governing board (including in detailed LBREPORT.com report here), L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn (whose Supervisorial district includes Long Beach and the southbay) opposed a motion by AQMD Boardmember (now Refinery Committee chair) 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 full 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 didn'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
Governor Newsom will now choose a replacement for the resigned AQMD Boardmember. TRAA has publicly urged Governor Newsom to appoint an AQMD Boardmember who will oppose the continued use of MHF.
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.
AQMD's Refinery Committee will conduct a Saturday June 22 meeting starting at 10 a.m. at the agency's headquarters, 21865 Copley Drive in Diamond Bar. The Committee's members are: Mayor Pro Tem Larry McCallon (Highland), Mayor Judith Mitchell (Rolling Hills Estates), L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, OC Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, Lisa Bartlett and Mayor Ben Benoit (Wildomar).
The meeting's agenda can be viewed at this link.
Ultimately, AQMD's full governing board will decide whether to pursue a negotiated MOU letting the refineries continue using MHF (which could continue to be supplied by trucks traveling along area freeways) or adopt Rule 1410 requiring the two refineries to phase out their continued use of MHF and, if they seek to continue to operate, spend the sums necessary to convert their facilities using sulfuric acid instead of MHF.
June 21: Some text re MOU vs. rule revised/updated for clarity.
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