This 2015 explosion caused a small earthquake that caused nearby homes to tremble, injured four facility employees, and coated the surrounding area in ash and dust.
Investigators concluded in a report two years later that the explosion almost caused the release of tons of modified hydrofluoric acid (MHF), potentially endangering thousands of people in the South Bay.
Refinery officials, including those from ExxonMobil, who were the owners of the Torrance Refining Company at the time of the explosion, and PBF Energy, the current owner, have frequently denied that assertion, claiming MHF doesn’t pose a significant concern.
However, since the 2015 explosion, locals have continued to criticize MHF, which is a highly toxic chemical. The only two refineries in the state that use the chemical are in Wilmington and Torrance.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ proposal for a ban on the highly toxic chemical was the most recent shot in the conflict over MHF – the first dates all the way back to after World War II.
Residents praised the action, which was timed to coincide with the anniversary and introduced by Supervisor Janice Hahn; however, PBF blasted the county board’s decision in a statement.
The corresponding answers were expected: Both parties in this conflict have vehemently defended their stances for years.
Environmentalists and worried locals claim that MHF might be disastrous if it were to escape, citing the corrosivity of the toxic chemical as well as studies that show it can migrate beyond a refinery’s footprint.
However, according to refinery officials, MHF was intentionally created to be safer than its original, non-modified form, hydrofluoric acid, and has been examined and determined to be the best catalyst for the refining process by professionals. They also claim that numerous safety improvements have been made to stop leakage and protect refinery personnel.
Those in charge of the Torrance facility also claim that since it began operating in 1966, the refinery has not had an off-site leak of either MHF or HF.
At least for elected politicians, economic issues such as the creation of jobs and the significance of oil on the global and regional scale further exacerbate the problem.
The “modified” component of MHF is at the heart of that argument.
Hydrofluoric acid, which acts as a catalyst during the alkylation process, was a common ingredient in the oil refining process for many years and is a toxic chemical.
However, because HF is so corrosive, it may endanger adjacent towns if it were released as a gas in a fire or explosion.
Modified hydrofluoric acid was developed by Phillips 66 and ExxonMobil in the late 1980s. It has a chemical additive that, when employed in sufficient proportions, can stop the dangerous molecule from dispersing.
According to a 2018 study from the Torrance refinery justifying its usage of the toxic chemical, if a leak happened, a liquid cloud would form that would cling to the earth. As per the report, this would stop the toxic chemical from dispersing as extensively as an aerosol would.
When Valero refinery launched MHF at its Wilmington refinery in 2004, the South Coast Air Quality Management District made a similar statement in an environmental report the organization conducted.
However, activists and environmentalists contend that with the creation of the modified version, the additive’s levels in MHF have dramatically decreased.
MHF opponents have also voiced concern over the refineries’ insufficient efforts to protect the safety of the local community in this local battle.
The Torrance refinery disputed this as well and stated that they have projects in place that make use of the most advanced safety systems, such as the Torrance Alkylation unit, as well as agreements with several government agencies to install additional safety measures.
However, these safety enhancements were only implemented after the explosion in 2015 and were because oil refining recently received a harsh assessment conducted by federal investigators.
A 73-page report on the incident was released in 2017 by the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
According to the report, the explosion released a 40-ton piece of debris that almost hit tanks holding thousands of pounds of MHF.
Furthermore, according to a presentation from AQMD officials, tests have indicated that MHF, which Torrance has been using since 1997, rapidly spreads upon release and can travel at fatal amounts up to two miles.
Both the Valero and PBF refineries are located in heavily populated parts of the South Bay: according to the AQMD, 153,000 and 245,000 people, respectively, live within three miles of Valero’s refinery and three miles of the Torrance refinery.
The explosion was likely due to poor management and inadequate safety procedures implemented by the refinery’s previous owner, ExxonMobil, who later sold it to PBF Energy, according to the Chemical Safety Board. CSB continued to say that the refinery accident was avoidable.
Nevertheless, the explosion prompted the refinery to start installing additional safety enhancements, some of which were voluntary safety enhancements and others at the virtually direct request of governmental organizations.
The explosion also sparked a movement against MHF among locals. Those requests for a ban in this local battle continue.
The resolution, overwhelmingly approved by the LA County Board of Supervisors in mid-February, requests that Gov. Gavin Newsom and the office of the Attorney General Rob Bonta take all necessary efforts to require refineries in California to switch from MHF to safer alternatives.
Additionally, the governor’s administration acknowledged receiving the request but chose to remain silent. According to Bonta’s office, the county hadn’t sent a letter.
The motion also directs county departments to assess current MHF-related health and safety measures, including any necessary emergency measures.
Furthermore, it instructs LA County to back any new legislation that would assist in the phase-out of MHF.
The AQMD abandoned the proposed ban in 2019, accepting bids from both refineries that pledged to upgrade the safety of the current MHF units instead.
According to Lafayette, these safety improvements entail the construction of a new protective steel structure, the installation of an expanded water mitigation system, an improved HF/MHF detection system, and additional water mitigation monitors.
These upgrades were finished in 2021 and are currently operational.
According to Lafayette, PBF and the US Environmental Protection Agency have signed a separate agreement for the upgrade of a second water monitor in 2020.
While the local battle over this highly toxic chemical at Torrance Wilmington refineries continues, Ehline Law Firm is here to assist any people who’ve suffered due to a company’s negligence in Southern California. If you’re ready to fight for your rights, contact us today at 833-LETS-SUE!
Michael is a managing partner at the nationwide Ehline Law Firm, Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC. He’s an inactive Marine and became a lawyer in the California State Bar Law Office Study Program, later receiving his J.D. from UWLA School of Law. Michael has won some of the world’s largest motorcycle accident settlements.
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