By Nick Green, THE DAILY BREEZE
January 13, 2020
The EPA has levied a $125,000 fine against the owners of the Torrance Refinery for chemical safety and risk-management violations, the federal agency announced Monday, Jan. 13.
The violations stem from a 2016 investigation, which found equipment designed to help contain an accidental release of toxic hydrofluoric acid — a modified version of which the Torrance Refinery uses — remained broken for weeks.
The refinery has corrected all the violations, the Environmental Protection Agency said in its statement.
Refinery owner PBF Energy has agreed to spend $219,000 to enhance chemical safety features at the plant, including installing a new automated water system designed to inhibit the formation of any toxic cloud created by an accidental release of hydrofluoric acid.
The inspection by the Environmental Protection Agency found “inaccuracies” in the refinery’s mandated risk-management plan, including failing to conduct a proper hazard assessment, document equipment repairs and follow emergency operating procedures. Those are considered violations of the Clean Air Act’s Chemical Accident Prevention Program, said Mike Stoker, EPA Pacific Southwest’s regional administrator.
“It is critical for the refinery to maintain an up-to-date and accurate risk management plan,” he said in a statement. “These actions ensure that facilities handling dangerous materials are minimizing potential impacts to the environment and the surrounding community.”
Abena Williams, spokeswoman for the plant, which PBF operates under a subsidiary called the Torrance Refining Company, said that some of the investigation’s findings predate the company’s ownership.
“In a spirit of cooperation and to avoid a lengthy appeals process,” she said via email, “TORC agreed to enter into this settlement so that we can focus on running the Torrance Refinery in a safe, reliable and environmentally responsible manner.”
But critics called the EPA’s action inadequate.
“If this is all the U.S. government is going to make oil companies pay for contaminating and threatening communities,” said Jamie Court, president of Los Angeles nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, “it certainly pays to pollute,”
PBF reported a net income of $86.3 million in the third quarter of 2019.
“In view of the magnitude of the danger from HF, these are paltry amounts for fines and safety improvements,” said Daniel Horowitz, former managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. “What EPA should be doing is requiring oil companies to phase out HF completely and move to safer advanced technologies for making gasoline.”
Williams, meanwhile, said the safety improvements will be performed by Dec. 15, 2021, during the refinery’s next major scheduled maintenance.
A 2015 explosion at the Torrance refinery, then owned by Exxon Mobil, almost caused a release of hydrofluoric acid. The explosion placed the refinery under scrutiny from state and federal agencies, as well as environmental groups. The Chemical Safety Board concluded at the end of its investigation that the explosion almost caused a catastrophic release of the chemical that could have killed or injured thousands.
Many experts say hydrofluoric acid can form a deadly ground-hugging gas cloud at room temperature and fear the impact a major accidental release could have on a densely populated area.
The refinery, which has more than 585 employees, has used modified hydrofluoric acid, also known as MHF, in its refining process since 1997.
Refinery officials say the additive — intended to inhibit the formation of such a cloud — and other added safety measures, such as acid-detecting paint, significantly reduce the chance of an accidental release. Since the refinery opened in 1966, officials have said, there has never been an offsite release of MHF or its unmodified forebear.
But some experts have said the modified version is no less toxic than unmodified hydrofluoric acid and its safety remains unproven.
The federal government, for its part, is still seeking information about the safety benefits of MHF. In September, meanwhile, the South Coast Air Quality Management District accepted an offer of increased safety enhancements from the Torrance and Wilmington refineries, the two South Bay refineries that use MHF. That offer brought an end to the lengthy and highly technical public debate over a potential AQMD rule to phase out MHF.
Veteran journalist Nick Green is the beat reporter for the cities of Torrance, Carson and Lomita and also covers the South Bay’s rapidly growing craft beer industry for the Daily Breeze. He has worked for newspapers on the West Coast since graduating in 1987 from the University of Washington and lives in Old Torrance with his wife and two cats. Follow him on Twitter @NickGreen007 and @BeerGogglesLA.