Torrance Daily Breeze - Al Muratsuchi
The Torrance ExxonMobil refinery explosion on Feb. 18 was a wake-up call for me and for a growing number of South Bay residents. While ExxonMobil recently announced the sale of the refinery to PBF Energy, the dangerous conditions will remain the same unless local officials and residents demand changes.
Most importantly, it is time for the Torrance refinery to stop using modified hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic chemical that can threaten the lives and health of more than 250,000 South Bay residents living within a three-mile radius of the refinery. If the refinery refuses, the state of California should ban the use of this dangerous chemical in densely populated areas such as Torrance and the South Bay.
My wife, daughter, and I lived less than two miles south of the Torrance refinery when the February explosion occurred. The blast ripped apart major steel structures at the refinery, shook surrounding homes and neighborhoods like an earthquake, and scattered white ash and debris onto homes and businesses from Torrance to Redondo Beach. Luckily, no one was killed, but four workers suffered injuries.
Following the February explosion, I learned more about the long history of accidents at the Torrance refinery. A 1979 butane gas explosion killed a 19-year-old woman and two refinery workers. In 1987, a gas-line explosion created a major fire and released around 100 pounds of toxic hydrofluoric acid. A 1988 refinery explosion killed one person and injured nine others, causing the city of Torrance to file a lawsuit against Mobil calling for an end to its use of hydrofluoric acid. Another gas explosion in 1994 injured 28 refinery workers. A 2009 blast of boiling water and steam killed another refinery worker. Most recently, on Sept. 6, state regulators announced an investigation into a leak of modified hydrofluoric acid.
ExxonMobil has failed to take any meaningful action to restore public confidence in its ability to keep our community safe. State regulators recently fined ExxonMobil $566,600 for 19 workplace health and safety violations, including serious and willful violations where ExxonMobil failed to take action to fix known hazardous conditions and intentionally failed to comply with state safety standards. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has refused to respond to subpoenas issued by federal inspectors investigating the February explosion.
While refineries may be inherently hazardous, the Torrance refinery’s ongoing use of modified hydrofluoric acid is most disturbing. Hydrofluoric acid is used as a catalyst in processing high-octane gasoline. This highly toxic acid vaporizes and forms a ground-hugging cloud that can drift for miles, causing severe burns and death. Both ExxonMobil and now PBF Energy claim that a modified version of hydrofluoric acid now in use is safe. However, according to ExxonMobil’s own analysis, a worst-case scenario at the Torrance refinery could release 5,200 pounds of modified hydrofluoric acid that could spread 3.2 miles and threaten the lives of more than 250,000 people.
This month, a top federal regulator from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board confirmed the potentially catastrophic danger posed by modified hydrofluoric acid. According to a recent CBS News report, the February explosion at the Torrance refinery caused an 80,000-pound piece of equipment to fly almost a hundred feet and land just a few feet from a tank filled with the toxic acid. Modified hydrofluoric acid “is one of the most hazardous and deadly chemicals,” stated Chemical Safety Board chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland. “It could have been much more catastrophic. If I were in the community, I absolutely would be concerned.”
There are safer, less toxic alternatives to modified hydrofluoric acid, alternatives that would not put a quarter million South Bay residents at risk. Last week, the mayor and City Council of Torrance voted unanimously to explore alternatives to modified hydrofluoric acid. Only two refineries in California —– the Torrance refinery and the Wilmington Valero refinery — use modified hydrofluoric acid. The ongoing use of this potentially deadly chemical, even in a modified form, is simply not compatible with the densely populated South Bay neighborhoods surrounding the refinery. It is unacceptable for ExxonMobil and PBF Energy to continue to gamble with our community’s safety when there are other safer options available.
Now is the time for modified hydrofluoric acid to be eliminated from refineries in densely populated neighborhoods. ExxonMobil’s sale of the refinery to PBF Energy presents an opportunity for Torrance and the South Bay to demand safety upgrades to the blighted and dangerous refinery. The refinery sale also provides an opportunity for PBF Energy to demonstrate its commitment to the community and its safety by ending the use of modified hydrofluoric acid. If the refinery refuses, the state should ban the use of this dangerous chemical in densely populated areas.
The Feb. 18, 2015, explosion should be a wake-up call for all South Bay residents to demand that refineries prioritize public safety over profits.
Al Muratsuchi is a former California Assembly member and a former Torrance Unified School District board member.