Torrance refinery restarts, and some residents worry
by Richard Core | Take Two May 10 2016
An explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance caused four minor injuries on Wednesday, February 18, 2015. Daniella Segura/KPCC
Listen to this story 6 min 46 sec
ExxonMobil’s refinery in Torrance, which had been closed for over a year after an explosion that rained dust and polluted air over the surrounding area, restarted production early Tuesday morning without incident, according to company and government officials.
As part of the restart process that began at about 7 p.m. Monday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District allowed ExxonMobil a six-hour window to shut down a pollution-control system the company said it needed as a safety precaution.
As it turned out, the pollution-control system was shut down for only 2-1/2 hours, from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., said South Coast AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.
“At about 11:30 p.m. last night this pollution control device was turned back on and it will continue to operate as long as the refinery is operating,” Atwood said.
During the restart the AQMD had air pollution scientists watching air-quality monitors inside the refinery property and in the nearby neighborhoods, as well as in two vehicles driving throughout the surrounding area, Atwood said.
“During the shutdown we really didn’t come close to exceeding any health-based thresholds set by both the state and federal governments for fine particulate pollution,” Atwood said.
An AQMD hearing board in April set the requirements for the restart and said it would require ExxonMobil to pay about $5 million in penalties for air pollution violations resulting from the February 2015 blast. An explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance caused four minor injuries on Wednesday, February 18, 2015. Daniella Segura/KPCC
ExxonMobil spokeswoman Gesuina Paras said in a statement issued Tuesday morning that the restart had been completed in compliance with the AQMD’s order.
“We can confirm the Torrance refinery completed the six-hour period per the terms of the South Coast Air Quality Management District Hearing Board Order for Abatement,'' Paras said. “We evaluate each phase of the restart sequence and continue to work with the South Coast Air Quality Management District on the stringent conditions outlined in the Order for Abatement.”
Atwood said AQMD officials will continue to monitor air quality around the refinery for at least another day, but the facility was otherwise returning to normal operations and the AQMD would return to its regular weekly inspections of the refinery's emissions.
“The other next step is to closely evaluate whether ExxonMobil was in full compliance with the order for abatement [of pollution during the restart],” Atwood said. “We didn’t observe any violations but we will make sure they were in compliance.”
Steve Goldsmith, a Torrance resident who lives near the refinery and who is a member of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, told KPCC's Take Two show that he and his wife did not trust the air quality during the restart and so they spent the night with a relative in Santa Monica.
Goldsmith said he and other neighbors continue to be concerned with the safety of the refinery, which he claimed is continuing to use a refining process involving hydrofluoric acid that is more dangerous than possible alternative methods.
"That ... refinery... they made some small changes in the structure—put in some automatic shut-offs and things like that—but basically they're using the same method, and they have kept the hydrofluoric acid in the process when they could have done a complete rebuild," Goldsmith said.
In response to such concerns, Atwood said, the AQMD has agreed to commission a study with a firm that has expertise in oil refineries to determine the safety of the ExxonMobil operations. Atwood said the study may be completed by the end of this year and at that time the AQMD will decide if further regulations are required for the refinery to ensure the safety of the surrounding area.
The refinery was sold to New Jersey-based oil refining company PBF Energy in September. The $527.5 million deal is expected to close soon. The 750-acre refinery has had a capacity of 155,000 barrels per day, but PBF has said it plans to increase capacity to about 900,000 barrels per
day. Aerial footage from NBC4 showed firefighters responding to the scene of an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, Calif., on February 18, 2015. NBC4
Federal authorities blamed a breakdown in safety procedures for causing the 2015 explosion. State regulators likewise issued 19 citations against ExxonMobil and penalties totaling $566,600.
Refining the refinery: Last year’s ExxonMobil explosion could lead to big changes at Torrance plant
by Ryan McDonald
Eighteen months after an explosion hit the oil refinery in Torrance, shockwaves are still being felt.
The blast energized Torrance residents, prompting families to organize into dedicated advocacy groups. Now, with regulators and politicians paying increasingly close attention, critical changes to the refining process at the facility — ExxonMobil at the time of the blast, now Torrance Refining Co. — may be on the horizon.
Drawing particular attention is the refinery’s use of modified hydrofluoric acid. While effective in the gasoline production process, hydrofluoric acid is also dangerous, and regulators examining the facility have indicated that the February 2015 incident could have been far worse had the explosion breached the acid storage area, threatening residents all across the South Bay.
On Monday, prior to a meeting of the regional agency tasked with enforcing federal and state air pollution rules, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, residents spoke out regarding the fears that have become a regular part of their lives since the blast.
“Each night as I tuck my two- and three-year-old into bed, and wonder if this will be a bad emissions night,” said Maureen Mauk, a Torrance resident and co-founder of Families Lobbying Against Refinery Exposures (FLARE), one of the activist groups to spring up in the wake of the explosion.
Elected officials and candidates from both parties made clear that they shared residents’ concerns about the use of the chemical.
“The Torrance refinery must prioritize public safety over profits,” said Al Muratsuchi, the Democratic nominee for a local seat in the state assembly, who has been endorsed by FLARE and other environmental groups. “The use of modified hydrochloric acid threatens hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Assemblyman David Hadley, Muratsuchi’s opponent in the November race, was also present at the meeting, and similarly urged an end to the use of the chemical.
“This facility really should not be relying on hydrofluoric acid,” Hadley said in an interview. “The refinery may not have been in a densely populated area when it was built, but it is now.”
Hydrofluoric acid, or HF, is a chemical catalyst employed at the Torrance refinery used in the alkylation process for the production of high-octane fuel, part of the blend that ultimately winds up in gas station pumps. While it is more efficient than competing catalysts, scientists say it is also far more dangerous.
If vaporized, as could have occurred during the accident last year, the acid could form a low-lying chemical cloud that would travel for miles. Such a cloud “can cause severe damage to the respiratory system, skin, and bones of those who are exposed, potentially resulting in death,” according to a report, issued earlier this year by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in response to the Torrance incident.
Use of hydrofluoric acid at the Torrance facility has been controversial for years. It spawned legal action from the city in the 1990s, and lead to a consent decree under which facility operators agreed to include additives that decreased the risk of vapor cloud formation. But the additives diminished the effectiveness of the chemical in the refining process, and the concentration of the “modified hydrofluoric acid” has gradually crept back up since the consent decree.
Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), also present at Monday’s meeting, said that the local community had been “hoodwinked” by the gradually increasing concentration, and that lack of transparency from refinery operators on the topic has left residents in the dark.
“Is this refinery safe? We just don’t know, and that is very troubling,” Lieu said.
Community activists estimate that the blend currently employed at the refinery contains at least 90 percent hydrofluoric acid. Such a concentration, they argue, still poses a severe threat to residents.
“We need to eliminate hydrofluoric acid,” Dr. Sally Hayati, an engineer and a leader with the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. “Modified HF is HF.”
Last year’s explosion put the facility under close regulatory scrutiny from federal agencies. Kay Lawrence, chief of the emergency prevention and preparedness branch at the Environmental Protection Agency’s San Francisco office, said that in addition to the federal chemical safety board, the EPA has visited the site twice since the explosion, and is preparing a final report due out later this year.
Lawrence emphasized that the problems identified in the chemical safety board study report occurred while ExxonMobil was running the refinery, not under current owners PBF Energy, a New Jersey-based company that took over the facility in June. Nonetheless, under federal law, any oil refinery with a history of accidents is subject to the highest level of scrutiny from regulators.
“If they’ve had an accident, even if they’re out in the middle of the Nevada desert, then they’re obligated to be more restrictively managed,” Lawrence said.
Neither community members nor government officials have suggested halting operations at the refinery. Instead, they would prefer to see the use of a different alkylation catalyst, like sulfuric acid.
A long-awaited report released Friday from the AQMD and Norton Engineering Consultants examined alternatives to the use of modified hydrofluoric acid, including sulfuric acid. The chemical properties of sulfuric acid mean that, unlike hydrofluoric acid, it does not pose the risk of toxic cloud formation.
The report indicated that while sulfuric acid is a commercially viable alternative, it would impose potentially significant costs on the refinery. The report estimated that conversion to a sulfuric acid facility would cost about $100 million. Executives from PBF told the Daily Breeze that costs could be far higher, reaching as much as $300 million.
Muratsuchi welcomed the Norton report, saying it added to the case for phasing out hydrofluoric acid. The former assemblyman introduced a plan Monday that, in addition to banning hydrofluoric acid, would improve air quality monitoring at the facility and enhance notification of residents when issues emerge.
In an interview following the AQMD meeting, Muratsuchi acknowledged the differing cost estimates and the important contribution that the refinery makes to the region’s economy. But he noted that, along with the Valero refinery in Wilmington, the Torrance refinery is one of only two in the state to employ hydrofluoric acid.
“What we do know is that all other refineries use sulfuric acid except for Torrance and Valero,” Muratsuchi said. “Not only can it be done, but it is being done.”
Asked for comment about the report, PBF Energy provided a statement that downplayed the danger posed by existing operations.
“The modified hydrofluoric acid unit at the Torrance refinery is one of the most sophisticated units, with many layers of protection for added safety,” the statement said.
PBF agreed with regulators that hydrofluoric and sulfuric acid represent the only two possibilities for alkylation, but said that “No refinery had ever switched from one technology to the other.”
Among the challenges associated with conversion is that a far greater volume of sulfuric acid is necessary to produce the same amount of refined fuel. Converting could mean enhanced truck or rail traffic at the site to bring the sulfuric acid. (Activists say it may be possible to generate at least some of the catalyst on site).
But public comment at the AQMD meeting indicated that residents feel far more comfortable with the risk of increased truck traffic than with threat posed by continued use of modified hydrofluoric acid. While speaking, resident Arnold Goldstein held up a gas mask that he said is issued to Israeli citizens for use during terrorist threats.
“This will not protect me against HF. It will not protect anyone against HF,” Goldstein said.
State regulators’ next more is unclear. The AQMD came under fire earlier this year when elected officials from Orange County selected Dwight Robinson, a Republican and Lake Forest City Councilmember, to replace the outgoing Miguel Pulido, Democrat and mayor of Santa Ana, shifting the partisan balance of the agency’s governing board. Robinson had spoken out about the need for regulators to be more attuned to the needs of businesses and, less than a week after he joined, the district board forced out Barry Wallerstein, who had served as executive officer for the previous 19 years.
At the legislative level, Hadley estimates that he has spent more time on this issue than any other during his term in the assembly. He said he has met with FLARE and the refinery action alliance, as well as homeowners groups, refinery employees, and executives from both ExxonMobil and PBF.
Hadley said he remains firmly opposed to the use of hydrofluoric acid at the Torrance refinery, but is also mindful of the complexities of the issue. During the latest legislative session, Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) introduced a bill that would have restricted the use of hydrofluoric acid at plants in residential areas. The bill, AB 1759, would have affected plants storing 250 gallons or more of the acid, which many businesses called far too low. It died in committee, and Hadley did not support it.
“This was not a well-advised piece of legislation,” Hadley said. “No one really knows for sure, but would have closed hundreds or thousands of plants. It was bringing work of sledge hammer to a process that could have used a scalpel.”
California’s tough rules a blessing and curse for refiners: Fuel for Thought
Refiners operating in California expect a tough environmental regulatory permitting process. This has been a bit of a curse at times, causing long delays and restrictions on modifying their plants.
But it has also been a blessing. While the strict rules make the fuels more expensive to make, it also limits the number of suppliers who can supply the fuel to California, giving regional refiners virtually unlimited access to demand in a state where gasoline demand is greater than any other and growing.
Give this backdrop, it was interesting to see what may have been a brief loosening of restrictions in Southern California because of a personnel change open a window of opportunity for the restart of ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery.
That reopening, which had been slowly moving through the environmental regulatory process before the ouster of the longtime head of South Coast Air Quality Management District, was necessary before ExxonMobil could sell its Torrance plant to East Coast refiner PBF Energy.
Long-time head of South Coast Air Quality Management District, Barry Wallenstein, was voted out in a 7 to 6 vote taken by the regulatory agency’s 13-person board during a closed session on March 4.
The vote to oust Wallenstein occurred after January’s appointment of two board members shifted the balance of power to the Republican camp, a move which was expected to result in “a loosening of requirements” and less rigorous air quality policies, according to sources familiar with the situation.
The timing of the board change will help facilitate the sale of ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery to PBF, which is contingent on the proven performance of the refinery’s gasoline-making FCC unit, shut February 2015 after an explosion and a fire.
Wallenstein had headed the agency since 1997, and his removal caused dismay among environmental groups, who feared any loosening of regulations would bring back the nasty smog, which plagued the Los Angeles Basin for years.
In early April, following Wallenstein’s departure, agency approval was given to restart the 87,000 b/d FCC unit at ExxonMobil’s 149,500 b/d Torrance, California, refinery.
The restart was a bone of contention among Torrance residents, due in part to ExxonMobil’s failure to notify the community of a hydroflouric acid pipeline leak last September, an action for which it was fined by the state.
While the Torrance restart plan has multiple stringent and rigorous monitoring requirements, it expects refinery emissions levels would exceed permitted levels because it will not use pollution control devices known Electrostatic Precipitators (ESPs) during the restart process.
“This limitation on use is necessary to ensure the safety of the start-up procedure but will minimize excess emissions to the maximum extent feasible,” the agency’s order of abatement said, referring to not using ESPs continuously during the restart.
Personnel change doesn’t mean looser rules
Industry participants caution in assuming an agency change in Southern California means a loosening in the state’s environmental regulations.
“Our mandate is to ensure petroleum refining activities are done as safely as possible,” said Paul Penn, Emergency Management and Refinery Safety Program Manager at the California Environmental Protection agency.
The California Environmental Quality Act, passed in 1970, requires extensive review of project impacts, using 18 environmental factors to determine whether to issue permits.
Despite the personnel change in Southern California’s air quality regulatory body, the state’s strict guidelines are not under threat — and neither is PBF’s deal for ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery.
The state’s strict CARBOB gasoline and diesel specifications make the fuels more expensive to produce, it also limits the number of suppliers who can sell the fuel to California drivers.
The higher production cost, combined with logistical issues such as lack of pipelines bringing in product from outside the region and the expense of fixing a Jones Act vessel from other US regions, give regional refiners the upper hand in supplying California and surrounding states like Washington and Arizona, who have opted in to using California spec fuels.
And while other refiners have said at various times they want to leave California, it helps explain why PBF’s iconic executive chairman, Tom O’Malley had been on the look out for a California refinery.
“Southern California is a very attractive market and we are excited to become a supplier in the region,” he said, after the PBF deal to buy Torrance was announced in late September 2015. — Janet McGurty in New York=========
Message from the Refinery - September 19, 2016
At approximately 4:20 a.m. on Monday, September 19, the South Bay experienced several power outages throughout the morning. The local utility’s electrical issues interrupted operations at the Torrance Refinery.
Torrance Fire and Torrance Police Departments responded. Plant personnel are assessing the situation and are working to restore operations safely. The South Coast Air Quality Management District, and California Office of Emergency Services have been notified.
Refinery response personnel and the Torrance Fire Department are jointly conducting fence line and community air monitoring. As a precautionary measure, refinery personnel and Torrance Fire Department activated the Del Amo Barriers.
The flare that the community may see is a safety device that refineries use to relieve pressure and ensure gases are safely combusted to minimize releases to the atmosphere.