Is Torrance changing its tune on refinery safety?

March 12, 2017
In The News

With each passing Torrance refinery blast, fire, hydrofluoric acid leak, crane collapse, power outage or smoke-belching emergency flare, calls have grown for measures to make the plant safer.

Local activists have pleaded for a ban on highly toxic hydrofluoric acid used at refineries in Torrance and Wilmington — the only two in the state to use the acid. More than 8,000 people have signed a petition in support.

South Bay Reps. Ted Lieu and Maxine Waters have repeatedly voiced support for a South Coast Air Quality Management District proposal to do away with the chemical, which is capable of forming a dangerous ground-hugging gas if released into the air.

And Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi has assembled a package of bills to improve refinery safety in the South Bay and statewide; one will include language endorsing an HF ban.

But since a powerful explosion in February 2015, city officials in Torrance have largely spurned opportunities to add their voices to those demanding safety improvements at the refinery now owned by PBF Energy.

Until last week, when Councilman Kurt Weideman broke ranks during a routine quarterly City Council review of activities related to refinery safety.

“I do not believe the city of Torrance has the jurisdictional authority in this matter, yet, nevertheless, as elected officials we have a unique position and latitude to use our position on the dais as a bully pulpit,” he said Tuesday night.

“I wholeheartedly support the effort of the AQMD and the efforts of state and federal regulators to regulate and eliminate hydrofluoric acid from our communities.”

It was a moment refinery critics had waited years to hear after the threat from the gas almost became a reality with the 1.7-magnitude explosion at the refinery that rained industrial debris across the community.

The federal Chemical Safety Board’s preliminary investigation of the blast found that a near-catastrophic release of thousands of pounds of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid was averted only by sheer chance. Debris heavy enough to likely breach the vessel containing the toxic chemical was prevented from hitting it only because workers had previously erected scaffolding around it for upcoming maintenance.

Weideman’s comments were all the more appreciated because, immediately before, Mayor Pat Furey had again defended the city’s response to refinery safety issues from critics who contend Torrance officials have done virtually nothing to lend its voice supporting a prohibition.

#AD_text{ font-size: 11px; color: #999999; } Furey declared that it “boggles my mind” to say the city was indifferent to residents’ wishes.

“There’s no indifference up here,” he said. “We are very concerned. ... But we have limitations on what we can do and we have expressed that over and over and over again.

“We know our limitations,” he added.

That much is true: The mantra from municipal officials has been something along the lines of “we are not experts on refinery operations and we don’t have the regulatory authority to do anything about them.”

Critics are outraged by that hands-off approach, and some claim it is hypocritical.

Especially since it was city officials, as part of a consent decree governing the operation of the refinery in the wake of multiple accidents in the late 1980s, who quietly signed off on a reduction of an HF additive that supposedly made the chemical safer.

Residents were never told of the threat, until word gradually leaked out after the 2015 blast.

In other words, despite the fact the refinery’s own disaster plan suggests an accidental release of HF could create a 3.2-mile toxic plume that could kill or injure more than a quarter-million people, municipal officials neglected to tell residents of the increased risk they and their families were exposed to by the reduced additive in HF.

Cliff Heise, a longtime Torrance resident and member of the grass-roots Torrance Action Alliance, said residents were incorrectly led to believe two decades ago that modified hydrofluoric acid was much safer than unmodified HF.

“Had we known then what we know now, the citizens of Torrance could have taken action long ago to rid our neighborhood of an incredibly dangerous chemical,” he said.

Industry experts have told the Daily Breeze the additive reduction does little or nothing to reduce the risk. And it certainly does nothing to affect HF’s toxicity, medical experts testified last week before the county Board of Supervisors.

“Our whole city deserves better than th game of chance determined by which way the wind blows,” Torrance resident Don Clay told the council last week. “We as residents can no longer afford this kind of risk.’

But city officials have been slow to come around.

Councilman Geoff Rizzo acknowledged his ignorance on the subject again Tuesday in explaining why he doesn’t want “elected officials to make decisions on what’s best for the refinery.

“I don’t pretend to know much about running a refinery and how to run it safely,” Rizzo conceded. “If this was an easy thing, it would have been done years ago, if not decades ago.”

All this punting is not going down well.

Torrance resident Craig Kessler took council members to task Tuesday for the perception they have done little compared to other levels of government when it comes to refinery safety.

“Get involved,” Kessler said bluntly. “The residents of the city are counting on you. I am asking you to drop your stance of what looks like indifference.”

Indeed, during the same meeting, Councilman Tim Goodrich took the major step of introducing a resolution expressing city support for the AQMD’s proposed HF ban, much as the county Board of Supervisors did earlier this week.

Reaction from his colleagues ranged from doubtful to outright hostile, even though it passed and will return for more council discussion later this month.

In a sense, a resolution doesn’t mean much because it has no teeth to compel anyone to do anything.

But it does provide a show of support and unity on an issue.

Some residents suspect what appears to be a cozy relationship between city officials and the refinery comes down to money.

Indeed, Furey and other city officials have publicly attempted to minimize the risks in an attempt to bolster the city’s treasured image as a business-friendly city.

“We are not a city of catastrophe,” Furey insisted during last year’s State of the City speech. “We are a city of success.”

Donna Duperron, president and CEO of the Torrance Area Chamber of Commerce and an ardent defender of the refinery, noted last week that it puts $8.7 million in property taxes and $7.5 million in utility-users’ taxes in municipal coffers annually.

She made the comment the day after City Manager LeRoy Jackson had insisted that “never has the council suggested we overlook safety because of the economic benefits to the city from the refinery.”

Yet, city officials have never appeared particularly supportive of the two grass-roots groups that formed in the wake of the explosion precisely because they weren’t convinced city officials would adequately represent them in their quest for additional refinery safeguards.

Time has largely proven them right.

The Torrance Refinery Action Alliance is seeking a ban on HF; South Bay Families Lobbying Against Refinery Exposures wants to see fewer smog-inducing flaring and chemical releases.

When the AQMD first declared its intent to ban HF earlier this year, Lieu was quick to lavish praise on the proposal and equally as swift to recognize those he believed played an influential role in the move.

“A big thank you to the incredible grass-roots activism that helped take us to this point,” said Lieu, a former Torrance council member. “I urge the SCAQMD to pass the ban as soon as possible, because residents in the South Bay continue to be at risk.

“While the oil industry and powerful special interests will aggressively challenge this proposed ban, I want SCAQMD to know that the overwhelming majority of residents and elected officials ‘have your back,’ ” Lieu added. “You can count on us to fight alongside you.”

Furey’s reaction was considerably cooler.

“It appears the AQMD recognizes the concerns of many of our residents and are addressing those concerns,” he said grudgingly via email. “For that, I am pleased.”

That kind of response is insufficient for local activists, including Maureen Mauk, co-founder of FLARE.

“The constant outages, poor electrical infrastructure, flaring, lack of air quality reporting and looming nightmare of a larger disaster have created a physical and environmental threat here in Torrance and the surrounding beach cities,” she told the AQMD at a recent hearing. “It is a threat that we have had to face far too many mornings.

“We should not have to have worry about where to take our children that will be a safe distance away from the refinery to keep them safe for the day,” she added. “We should not have to have our children miss school because the refinery makes it too dangerous to send them that day.

“Our government exists to keep us safe. They have failed us here in Torrance.”