Torrance Refining Company (Isabelle Jeng)
Millions living in the vicinity of two South Bay refineries are at risk from massive amounts of highly toxic hydrogen fluoride and tens of thousands could die from an accidental release ― vastly more than Covid-19 deaths in these communities.
By Isabelle Jeng, Environmental Journalist
Hydrofluoric acid (HF) is used by refineries to make high-octane gasoline. It boils at 67° F. The two refineries in California still using this volatile and highly caustic chemical store it in large quantities. Refineries sometimes explode. There have been three major near-misses in the last six years that could have caused mass casualties near refineries, one of them right here in the South Bay at the Torrance refinery. The other California refinery using HF is also in the South Bay: Valero in Wilmington. The SCAQMD (South Coast Air Quality Management District) Board’s latest failed attempt to ban HF — despite the findings of its own staff, based on masses of damning data — follows a long line of similar failed efforts at the state and local levels over the past three decades.
By failing to ban HF, the AQMD perpetuates the refineries’ lies. The refineries claim:
- HF is safe, especially when it’s “modified” (MHF).
- But they’re going to add “mitigation measures” anyway.
- There are never any off-site consequences.
- There are no alternatives to HF.
- Conversion is too expensive.
Let’s examine those claims.
The CDC warns exposure to HF affects internal organs, and can irritate the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract. Skin contact can cause burns. Long-term health effects include chronic lung disease, severe scarring of the skin, blindness, and damage to the esophagus and the stomach. And fluid build-up in the lungs can result in death.
The U.S. EPA requires companies using dangerous chemicals like HF to map a “Worst Case Scenario,” a circle where severe injuries or death may occur as a result of accidents, natural disasters, or intentional acts. In January 2020, the EPA, in a court action, increased significantly the radius of harm in the event of a large release of HF. The circle for the two refineries extends well into the South Bay, South Los Angeles, Inglewood, San Pedro, and parts of Long Beach. There is strong evidence that the true radius of harm is actually 16 miles.
National Security Sites and Our Homes
Affected areas within this 16-mile radius include homes and residences of at least 1.5 million people. Organized evacuation and shelter-in-place are out of the question because of the immediacy of an HF release. National security facilities such as Northrop Grumman, Long Beach and San Pedro harbors (which handle 31% of waterborne imports to the U.S.), SpaceX, L.A. Air Force Base, LAX and smaller airports, as well as hundreds of schools, dozens of healthcare facilities, malls, parks and community facilities such as the beaches of South Bay, yacht clubs in the harbor and many future Olympic sites. Often overlooked, the homeless population would be severely impacted.
Affected communities score very high on the environmental justice index (over 90 percentile). This index measures negative environmental burden borne by people with low incomes as well as people of color.
Transport of HF also poses a national security issue. Since trucks carrying large quantities of HF travel through interstate highways over the course of thousands of miles from Louisiana to California and to the 41 other refineries located in 20 states. If an accident were to occur, surrounding communities would be imperiled.
Both South Bay refineries are located near major earthquake fault lines. Refineries are dangerous places prone to accidents that could cause a major release of tens of thousands of pounds of HF. According to the L.A. County Department of Health, the health facilities needed to deal with a major release of HF are not available and would cost tens of millions per year to establish.
How do we know that HF poses such a danger? The “Goldfish” Test
In 1986, Dr. Ronald R. Koopman conducted what became known as the “Goldfish” Release Test of HF in the Nevada desert. In one test, 1,000 gallons of HF were intentionally released in two minutes from a golf-ball-size simulated rupture. Within minutes, a ground-hugging cloud rapidly expanded and traveled at the speed of the wind. To the great surprise of the scientists, 100% remained airborne. The HF concentration was twice the lethal level at two miles downwind of the release point.
Now, imagine what would have happened in the South Bay, where 245,000 people live within 3 miles of the Torrance Refining Company (ToRC). Each of the two acid settler tanks contains 6,000 gallons of HF — six times the amount in the Nevada test. The Wilmington Valero Refinery stores even more HF. The combined inventory for the two refineries is 80,000 gallons — about the total volume of four typical home swimming pools. To get an idea how dangerous this is, consider that just half an ounce of HF — one tablespoon — released into a conference room would result in life-threatening health effects.
The Torrance Refinery stores industrial chemicals so dangerous that it needs to be surrounded by electric fencing to prevent trespassing and intentional acts of chemical terrorism. But is this minimal protection enough? (Isabelle Jeng)
Does modification change anything?
The previous owner of the Torrance refinery, Exxon-Mobil, tried to cause an HF leak to “rain out” and fall to the ground rather than forming a ground-hugging aerosol cloud by adding sulfolane. However, to be effective, the concentration of sulfolane would have to be at least 45% by weight. When tested at the refinery at the reduced concentration of 19%, the alkylation process failed. Now, the refineries use as little as six percent, meaning there is no prevention of the formation of a deadly ground-hugging cloud. The world’s leading HF experts agree: MHF behaves like HF.
Would the promised mitigation measures (if ever implemented) help?
The two refineries, while claiming that everything was perfectly safe, offered more safety measures.
ToRC stated that it would install, maintain, and operate a protective steel structure, a water mitigation dome and curtain, and an enhanced MHF/HF detection system in and around the MHF alkylation unit’s acid settler area to protect from impact or disturbances. Wilmington Valero made similar promises.
Unfortunately, these mitigation measures are either untested or are “active mitigation” meaning they require action by people or electrical equipment, which may be incapacitated by an outage or earthquake. They are not only inadequate but address only causes of accidents that have previously happened, not other scenarios that could occur in other parts of the refinery or on interstate highways.
Nearly two years later the refineries have only reported that they have budgeted the funds and completed foundation designs, but nothing has been done — no shovel turned, no screw turned, no equipment tested. The community continues to assume the risk. The time to achieve these minimal measures has now been postponed to 2022. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, Valero has built in this same time period an alkylation unit that uses a vastly safer chemical. The price tag was 40% of what they claimed it would cost in Wilmington and that refinery has been operating without incident.
No off-site consequences?
In the past six years, three major refinery events involving near-misses for large releases of HF into the community:
1. On February 18, 2015, the Torrance Refinery exploded, and four people were injured. Investigations by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board revealed a faulty safety management system. An 80,000-pound piece of equipment came within five feet of the HF settler tank containing 50,000 pounds of HF.
2. On April 26, 2018, the Husky Energy Refinery located in Superior, WI, exploded and caused a large fire and a tank only six feet from the HF tank was pierced – that near-miss resulted in a 75,000-person evacuation. Thirty-six employees were injured and an investigation by the USCSB revealed that the explosion was attributed to a worn slide valve.
3. On June 21, 2019, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery (PES) exploded and 5,000 pounds of HF was released. A piece of equipment weighing approximately 19 tons was hurled across the Schuylkill River at an estimated rate of 170 miles per hour. Would the proposed “protective steel structure” protect the HF settler tank? Proof of its effectiveness is not known since no test results have been presented.
In the Philadelphia explosion, 60% of the HF released was not contained. Only two subsequent explosions dispersed the HF saving the South Philly community from likely casualties. On the other hand, the Marathon Martinez Refinery in Northern California had an 84,000-pound release of sulfuric acid, another chemical commonly used in alkylation. No deadly clouds formed, and no casualties occurred.
No Alternatives to HF/MHF?
Alternatives to HF/MHF for producing high-octane gasoline have been proven to be much safer, as Dr. Philip Fine testified in his presentation to the SCAQMD Governing Board, Feb. 1, 2019.
In Destrehan, Louisiana, Valero, owner of the HF-using Wilmington Refinery, constructed a grassroots alkylation unit that uses, instead of HF, advanced sulfuric acid, a safe and proven methodology. Valero had built this unit “on-time” (in less than three years) and “under-budget [of $416 million]” per their quarterly report.
Chevron converted an HF alkylation facility in Salt Lake City to use an ionic liquid catalyst instead of HF or sulfuric acid, and has a capacity of about 5,000 barrels of alkylate per day. Characteristically, ionic liquid salts have a melting point below 100° C, which is of high interest to scientists. It is also much “safer to handle and can be regenerated inexpensively on site.”
Multiple refineries based in China, notably the Wuhan Petrochemical Company (WPC) revamped an HF unit to use Ionikylation, an alkylation technology that uses a proprietary composite ionic liquid catalyst. The catalyst is neither hazardous nor corrosive. Research and development for Ionikylation has been ongoing for over twenty years now and the WPC has been operating now for over a year with no incidents. A refinery in Wynnewood, OK is in the process of revamping away from HF.
Too expensive to convert to safer alternatives, or too costly not to?
Switching from HF to safer alternatives poses a business risk, but we find ourselves asking, what is the cost of a business risk versus the risk to the health, lives, and economy of entire communities? (not to mention pets and wildlife) Why do we have to assume that risk?
Torrance Refinery Action Alliance (TRAA), a community group that many Sierra Club members belong to, has been fighting for the elimination of HF for over six years and has expanded its aims to include the elimination of the use of HF in all refineries across the U.S. This is not a suggestion to close refineries; it is instead an urge to switch to commercially available alternatives that are vastly safer than HF and do not pose a threat to local communities. It would not eliminate jobs, but would instead create them since building-trades workers would be required for constructing a new alkylation unit.
What we can do in this New Era of Politics for Environmental Justice
With a new presidential administration and revived EPA and U.S. Chemical Safety Board, there are new opportunities for federal legislation/regulation as a route for eliminating HF. While most environmental issues are chronic, posing long-term health and quality-of-life issues, a large release of HF is an acute issue with potentially severe consequences. Urgent action is needed, and much more is achievable.
Through the persistence of the community, TRAA has gathered the support of thousands of residents, environmental organizations, neighborhood councils, South Bay cities, and many elected officials, most notably five Southern California congressmembers, Lieu, Waters, Bass, Barragán, and Lowenthal, the California Attorney General, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
What you can do: (Click to contact TRAA South Bay.)
- Of utmost priority, urge Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate how HF has been allowed to continue to be used and to act to end the use of HF in California refineries by emailing mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org, and copying email@example.com.
- Connect, in a nationalized effort with the 41 other communities with refineries that use HF. This presents an opportunity for Sierra Club members to connect with other SC members around the country.
- The TRAA is also seeking a pro-bono environmental lawyer to advise in court action that would force refineries to switch to a safer alternative
- TRAA needs a website coordinator for www.traasouthbay.com
- Visit http://www.traasouthbay.com and read the Science Panel Blog for a deeper understanding of this issue. To attend General Public TRAAMeetings, email mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org These occur every second Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. PST.
To get involved or ask a question: info@TRAASouthbay.com
Special thanks to Steve Goldsmith, Jim Eninger, Al Sattler, and Steve Dillow for providing invaluable information for this article