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SCAQMD Committee Hears Expert Describe Lethal Levels At Various Distances If Hydrofluoric Acid Accidentally Released, Directs Formal Rulemaking To Phase-Out Modififed Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF) At LB-Adjacent Valero Wilmington And Torrance/ToRC Refineries

  • Board action by May 2019 UNLESS add'l technical info provided showing "enhanced mitigation" will adequately reduce public risk, inviting possible "Memorandum of Understanding" (contractual agreement instead of formal rule)
  • SCAQMD staff has estimated the refineries could convert to a safer chemical for roughly $300 Mil-$600 Mil
  • 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.
    (Sept. 23, 2018, 4:15 p.m.) -- Over 800 people (with no presence of which we're aware by Long Beach policy-setting Councilmembers, their office staffs, city staff or LB community groups) attended a Saturday (Sept. 22) SCAQMD hearing to address the risks of the accidental release of Modified Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF), a highly corrosive chemical, at two area refineries (one on the WLB border.) At the hearing, a scientist with expertise on the chemical testified that a 1987 experiment to measure the behavior of HF on release showed that it swiftly formed a ground-hugging cloud, roughly 8 feet high and traveling with prevailing winds, at HF concentrations that could likely cause deaths within 2.9 miles or cause serious health effects within 4.4 miles.

    Only two refineries in CA use MHF: the Valero refinery (owned by Ultramar) at 2402 E. Anaheim St. in LB-adjacent Wilmington and the ToRC (formerly ExxonMobil) refinery in Torrance. Tanker trucks bringing loads of MHF to the two refineries also travel along LB-area freeways. (Graphic right source: SCAQMD PPT from April 28 and Sept. 22 hearings.)

    Other CA refineries use a safer chemical (sulfuric acid) and in an April 28, 2018 hearing (reported in detail by here), SCAQMD staff estimated the refineries could convert their facilities to the safer chemical at a cost of roughly $300-$600 million.

    [Scroll down for further.]

    Following more than six hours of staff presentations (PPT presentation slides visible here), invited-expert testimony and public testimony (individual speakers limited to one minute each; groups allowed one spokesperson for ten minutes), the SCAQMD's Refinery Committee directed agency staff to begin a formal rulemaking proceeding that will bring proposed Rule 1410 to the full SCAQMD Board for possible adoption in May 2019 that would implement a controlled phase-out of MHF at the two refineries over a period of years.

    However during the intervening months before the May 2019 Board action, if the refineries and manufacturer of MHF provide more technical information on the chemical and show that enhanced mitigation measures will adequately reduce the risk to the public, the Committee directed staff to consider bringing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to the Board as a possible alternative to adopting a formal rule. In this case, an MOU would be a contract in which the refinery operators would agree to implement certain SCAQMD-agreed enhanced mitigation measures.



    1987 HF experiment and measured "lethality" concentrations and distances

    A key moment at the Sept. 22 hearing came when SCAQMD-invited HF expert Dr. Ronald Koopman Ph.D. (retired senior scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) described the results of 1987 experiments (conducted at the federal Nevada test site) and indicated that HF swiftly creates an expanding, ground-hugging cloud (observed in that experiment roughly 8 feet high) that can travel for several miles wherever prevailing winds take it. Dr. Koopman said release of 1,000 gallons of HF through a roughly one and a half inch orifice (nozzle) produced HF concentrations at distances as follows:

    • At 300 meters: 26,000 ppm [parts per million]

    • At 1,000 meters = 3,000 ppm

    • At 3,000 meters = 427 ppm

    Dr. Koopman then stated: "Just to put that in perspective, the acute emergency response guideline for lethality is only 170 ppm, so we've exceeded that and if you extrapolate that downwind, it extrapolates out to about 2.9 miles. So the lethality threshold extends 2.9 miles downwind from that test." Dr. Koopman also indicated that "serious health effects" were extrapolated begin at 4.4 miles from the release site.

    Dr. Koopman indicated he's unaware of tests performed that have produced data on MHF (HF with a substance added to "dilute" it) and said he is unclear how much modification of HF's behavior the modifier produces, but said that with a 6% concentration of modifier he "would guess that would be a very small effect."

    After the hearing, used Google Maps to find relative distances from the Valero Wilmington refinery to various LB reference points. Adjacent-Long Beach (L.A. County's second largest city) wasn't mentioned during the hearing.

    • Cabrillo High: 1.35 miles

    • LB City Hall: 2.33 miles

    • LB Poly High: 2.87 miles

    • LB Memorial Hospital: 3.25 miles

    • Hughes Middle School: 4.46 miles:

    • Traffic Circle: 5.19 miles

    • Michelle Obama Library: 6.20 miles

    • LBCC ELB campus: 6.65 miles

    • Millikan High: 7.26 miles


    SCAQMD staff indicated that the agency sought data on MHF tests and technology documentation from Honeywell, which said it needed permission from ExxonMobil (the technology developer) to release them, and in August 2018 ExxonMobil indicated it doesn't consent to public disclosure in any form (redacted or not) on grounds the documents contain trade secret and confidential business information.

    Refinery Committee chair Dr. Clark Parker, Sr. publicly voiced displeasure with the firms' stance that prevented release of information they have on HF/MHF testing and he indicated this was a basis for his stance in supporting moving forward with a formal rulemaking unless additional information comes to light.

    SCAQMD Board Chair Dr. William Burke didn't take an explicit position on a formal rule vs. an MOU but supported continuing to seek information while the rulemaking process is underway. Two Board members, Joseph Lyou, PhD and Mayor Pro Tem Judith Mitchell supported a rulemaking, stating they believe the MHF risk is too great. Mayor Larry McCallon (Highland) and Ben Benoit (Wildomar) indicated [paraphrase] they consider the risk manageable and supported an MOU instead of a formal rulemaking.

    Where was Long Beach?

    On Sept. 21, inquired from City of LB staff if it has taken any position to date on proposed Rule 1410 or if SCAQMD had contacted the City about the issue; a response is currently pending.

    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. Its 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. One of the "working group" members -- representing the City of Los Angeles (Office of Petroleum and Natural Gas Administration) -- is Uduak-Joe Ntuk, who was elected earlier this year to LBCC's governing Board of Trustees. spotted Mr. Ntuk at the April 2018 Torrance meeting at which time he politely declined comment and noted his involvement was in the capacity as a representative of the City of Los Angeles.

    To date, the only LB entity that submitted written comments in the proceeding visible on SCAQMD's website has been the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce (August 2017) whose position in August 2017 can be viewed at this link.

    Potentially catastrophic "near miss" in 2015 Torrance refinery explosion triggered the proceeding

    SCAQMD launched the proceeding after a Feb. 2015 explosion at the Torrance refinery (then owned by ExxonMobil) resulted in a potentially catastrophic "near miss" when "a large fragment struck scaffolding surrounding the MHF alkylation unit...within a few feet of the alkylation unit's settler tanks, each containing hydrofluoric acid (HF), water, hydrocarbons, and a chemical additive intended to reduce the amount of HF vaporized during a loss of containment event." (Source: U.S. Chemical Safety Hazard Investigation Board's investigation visible here.).

    Public testimony at the Sept. 22, 2018 hearing was sharply split. Grassroots residents from Torrance and the south bay, who organized themselves into the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance/TRAA, following the 2015 "near miss," delivered petitions said to contain over 11,000 Torrance/south bay residents urging phase-out/ban on MHF. TRAA President Sally Hayati [Ph.D/USC EE Department, BS/MS Degrees/UC Berkeley; retired Aerospace Corp, El Segundo] likened the potential consequences to the Bhopal, India Union Carbide pesticide gas leak that killed an estimated 15,000-20,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of survivors with long-term health issues.

    The Valero and Torrance (ToRC) refineries have supported the SCAQMD staff-acknowledged option of adopting a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) instead of a formal rule. In a roughly nine minute Sept. 22 hearing statement, a Valero management representative cited multiple mitigation measures he said were already put 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.

    Supporting the refineries' position were their unionized workers plus a number of supportive regional unions. Also speaking in support of an MOU were representatives of a number of business associations (including the LB Area Chamber of Commerce according to one supportive business group) and some non-profit groups (who indicated the refineries had been supportive of their works.)

    On September 18, 2017, Valero submitted a letter to SCAQMD visible at this link in which it argued that SCAQMD "has yet to establish a need for any action at all, much less a complete ban" of MHF.

    In response to union members concerned that banning MHF might result in the refinery's closure costing them their jobs, TRAA said converting the plants to using the less dangerous chemical would maintain their jobs and produce jobs during the conversion. One TRAA speaker, who identified himself as a former long time union member, publicly challenged either of the refinery operators to state publicly whether a rule banning MHF would cause them to close down their operations...and received no public reply.

    Conversion to a safer chemical?

    At both the April 28 and Sept. 22 hearings, AQMD staff acknowledged that conversion would involve some down-time/supply reductions but noted these would be planned (possibly staggered) and should have less of an impact than unplanned events. AQMD staff said at the April 28 hearing that converting the Valero Wilmington plant posed additional challenges due to space constraints but didn't elaborate on this at the Sept. 22 hearing.

    At the April 2018 public hearing, 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 indicated in April that an estimate by Burns & McConnell [contracted by TORC] was $600 million if a post-alkylation unit and post processing equipment is included and AQMD staff said post processing replacement may not be needed, in which the is estimated at $300 million. AQMD staff further noted in April 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.



    Elected officials on the issue

    Among those previously 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, south bay), 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, to our knowledge, the City of Long Beach has taken no position on the issue...and neither Mayor Robert Garcia nor any incumbent LB Councilmember(s) have agendized the issue for public discussion and possible Council action.

    Developing...with further to follow on

    Sept. 28: Text added and revised for clarity

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