New state law could enhance Torrance city clout over refinery

The ExxonMobil refinery is seen after an explosion in a gasoline processing unit at the facility, in Torrance, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. Two workers suffered minor injuries and a small fire at the unit was quickly put out. The incident triggered a safety flare to burn off flammable substances. The facility about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles covers 750 acres, employs over a thousand people, and processes an average of 155,000 barrels of crude oil per day, according to the company. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
The ExxonMobil refinery is seen after an explosion in a gasoline processing unit at the facility, in Torrance, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. Two workers suffered minor injuries and a small fire at the unit was quickly put out. The incident triggered a safety flare to burn off flammable substances. The facility about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles covers 750 acres, employs over a thousand people, and processes an average of 155,000 barrels of crude oil per day, according to the company. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Nick Ut/AP

Torrance city officials have long said they couldn't force the local refinery to abandon use of a dangerous chemical, but a newly strengthened state law may permit them to apply some pressure in that direction.
    
"We can require the refinery to research and find inherently safe technologies," Deputy Fire Chief David Dumais told the Torrance City Council on Tuesday night before a packed crowd of several hundred residents.
    
Explosions, power outages, smoky flares and other mishaps have spurred residents to call for a ban on a chemical called modified hydrofluoric acid at the Torrance refinery. Two years ago, an explosion at the plant caused a near-disaster when a multi-ton piece of equipment landed only feet from a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of the acid. A large spill could cause a toxic cloud of the acid to form and travel for miles, poisoning those in its path.

Newly strengthened elements of the state's Accidental Release Prevention Plan give the city the power to demand Torrance Refinery evaluate its refining processes and whether safer processes exist and could be adopted. The new provisions take effect in July.
    
"It gives agencies leverage," Dumais said.

                               Steven Goldsmith and Sally Hayati outside a Feb. 28, 2017 Torrance City Council meeting at which they called on the city and Torrance Refinery to bar use of a dangerous chemical
Steven Goldsmith and Sally Hayati outside a Feb. 28, 2017 Torrance City Council meeting at which they called on the city and Torrance Refinery to bar use of a dangerous chemical
Sharon McNary/KPCC

Torrance residents who support a ban, like Sally Hayati of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, welcome the new powers to force the refinery to evaluate the safety of its current processes and compare it with other processes.    

However, she said the city was overly focused on switching the Torrance refinery to a process that is still being developed elsewhere, while a different process that uses sulfuric acid was available now.
    
Only two California refineries use modified hydrofluoric acid: Torrance and Valero's Wilmington refinery. The rest use a process involving sulfuric acid.
    
Torrance Fire Chief Martin Serna said both major technologies used at U.S. refineries – the modified hydrofluoric acid at Torrance and Wilmington and the sulfuric acid used at all other refineries in California can be dangerous.  
    
Modified hydrofluoric acid can form a toxic cloud that can move a long distance, while sulfuric acid does not.