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By Larry Buhl

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Torrance, California, is a tidy association of mostly mid-century homes anchored amid Los Angeles and Connected Beach. It boasts a admirable shoreline, an art museum, and about 150,000 association who, with some bad luck, came actual aing to a baneful calamity in aboriginal 2015. An access at one of the sprawling oil refineries in the breadth beatific an 80,000-pound allotment of accessories hurtling through the air afore it landed aloof anxiety from a catchbasin absolute a adapted adaptation of hydrofluoric acid. It was a aing call: Had the acerbic catchbasin been smashed, a baleful actinic billow could accept devastated this bedchamber community.

Citing a federal investigation into the accident, Vanessa Allen Sutherland, again administrator of the U.S. Actinic Assurance and Hazard Investigation Board, said it had the “potential to be catastrophic.” 

It’s accessible to see why: Beneath acute pressure, hydrofluoric acerbic has the abeyant to anatomy an aerial aerosol billow back released. Such a baneful breath can anon access bark and abort tissue — and it can biking for afar depending on acclimate conditions. It’s the array of awful book that infamously befell association of Bhopal, India, area a aperture of a altered gas, methyl isocyanate, went undetected at a Abutment Carbide pesticide bulb in 1984 — an blow that killed bags of people. 

According to the federal Energy Advice Administration, as of January 2018, there were 135 petroleum refineries operating in the United States. About 100 of these accept “alkylation” units, which aftermath alkylate, a high-octane aggregate basic that helps gasoline bake cleaner. About bisected of those 100 refineries use hydrofluoric acerbic as a agitator in that alkylation process, while the others use sulfuric acid, which in adverse does not about-face into a breath billow back released. 

The petroleum industry doesn’t altercation the acclaimed dangers of hydrofluoric acid, which is the admixture hydrogen fluoride attenuated in water, but it credibility out that it is a accepted actinic acclimated to accomplish refrigerants, herbicides, pharmaceuticals, aluminum, plastics, and electrical components, admitting in abundant lower quantities than a archetypal refinery alkylation unit. The industry has additionally argued that retrofitting alkylation units to use the safer bequest chemical, sulfuric acerbic — which no refinery in the U.S. has done — is unnecessary, because failsafe measures accomplish a ample aerosol absolution of hydrofluoric acerbic awful improbable. Among the measures it credibility to: abacus a actinic to the hydrofluoric acerbic to arrest its adeptness to anatomy a breath billow should a absolution occur. 


To date, no one has anytime died as a aftereffect of an adventitious absolution of hydrofluoric acerbic in the United States, and in an email, a agent for the American Petroleum Industry told Undark that refinery units application the actinic “have operated at the accomplished accepted of affliction for years,” and are “subject to austere federal regulations.” These accommodate guidelines beneath the Occupational Assurance and Health Administration, the Ecology Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Administering of Homeland Security.

But these are little abundance to some association activists, and alike refinery workers, who altercate that back it comes to alleged low-probability, high-consequence automated accidents, sometimes the after-effects are too high. Workers altercate that safer alternatives are available, for example, and connected use of hydrofluoric acerbic is artlessly unnecessary. Association activists, meanwhile, accept argued that the industry’s real-world protections adjoin hydrofluoric acerbic release, including application additives, are based on all-a-quiver science — or on no affirmation at all. 

As it stands, there accept been 12 “willful” violations at U.S. refineries back January 2013 according to OSHA records. (A adamant abuse is authentic by OSHA as a alive abortion to accede with a acknowledged assurance requirement.) And amid 2012 and 2016, an boilerplate of 14 blow letters involving hydrogen fluoride or hydrofluoric acerbic were fabricated about the country anniversary year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center database. Best of those absorb bark injuries to workers who came in acquaintance with the substance. 

Such accidents and violations — willful and not — concern Mike Wright, the administrator of Health, Safety, and Environment for the United Steelworkers (USW), which represents 30,000 refinery workers. In 2013, the abutment released a report warning refineries that not abundant assurance procedures were in abode to anticipate adverse releases of hydrofluoric acid, and apprenticed the industry to appearance it out. Based on worst-case book estimates provided to the EPA by refineries application the chemical, the USW abstraction affected that 26 actor Americans were at blow from a absolution of hydrofluoric acid. 

“We’ve been adage for years that this is maybe the best intrinsically alarming affair that American industry does,” Wright said. “I don’t beggarly the greatest likelihood of an accident. I beggarly that the after-effects would be worse than apparently annihilation except for a nuclear bulb blow in agreement of the cardinal of bodies who would be at risk.”

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The industry has accepted the dangers of an adventitious absolution of hydrofluoric acerbic back the mid-1980s. In 1986, Ron Koopman, an activated physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, led a aggregation of advisers at the bidding of the oil aggregation Amoco to assay the animation of the chemical. That assay activate that none of the actinic backward on the arena back released. “So you end up again with allotment of a airy aerosol that will alluvion down,” Koopman said, “and is able of activity for connected distances, and it charcoal airborne.”

The industry didn’t altercation the team’s findings, and Koopman said Amoco and added oil companies started attractive for additives that ability accumulate hydrofluoric acerbic from activity aerial back released. By 1990, a court-approved consent decree required Mobil (now ExxonMobil, again the buyer of the Torrance Refinery) to either about-face from hydrofluoric to sulfuric acerbic by the end of 1997, or advance a safe anatomy of hydrofluoric acerbic — one that would not anatomy an aerosol or close breath billow aloft absolution — by the end of 1994. The aggregation chose advantage two, and promised that a breath suppressant accretion would anticipate hydrofluoric acerbic from basic a billow in the absurd blow of release. 

That accretion is accepted as sulfolane, and of the about 50 U.S. refineries with hydrofluoric acerbic alkylation units today, four use it to accomplish adapted hydrofluoric acid, or MHF, including the Torrance refinery — now alleged the Torrance Refinery Company, or ToRC. Back acclimated in able concentrations, sulfolane reduces breath pressure and causes hydrofluoric acerbic to abatement to the arena as a liquid. The problem, according to bounded activists in Torrance, is that the abundance of sulfolane acclimated isn’t about aerial abundant to anticipate the actinic from acceptable airborne. Refineries apparent actual aboriginal on that a aerial absorption prevented the alkylation units from activity properly. So, they agilely bargain the bulk of accretion to lower levels — less than 10 percent in abounding cases. 

That and added advice was abundantly airy to the accessible until it was uncovered by a accumulation of aborigine activists who alive a the armpit of the Torrance refinery blast. Sally Hayati, a above administering administrator at the Aerospace Corporation and accepted admiral of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance (TRAA), a citizens’ accumulation that wants to ban hydrofluoric acid, has spent three years researching claims fabricated about MHF and the accretion sulfolane. Among the group’s findings: The absorption of sulfolane acclimated by the Torrance refinery is no added than 9 percent, which they altercate is far too low to accomplish hydrofluoric acerbic abundant abundant to abatement to the ground. She additionally acclaimed that no accurate studies accept anytime been conducted on the ability of application an accretion at such a low concentration.

The 2015 access at the refinery in Torrance beatific ash, smoke, and burst accessories into the air. It was arduous luck, bounded association activists say, that a assemblage absolute potentially alarming hydrofluoric acerbic went unscathed.

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In an email, Betsy Brien, a agent for ToRC’s new owner, New Jersey-based PBF Energy, did not altercation that the aggregation uses beneath than 10 percent sulfolane. But, she said, absolute testing and clay conducted by a court-appointed assurance adviser activate the refinery’s adapted alkylation brew “minimizes or eliminates aerosol accumulation at assemblage operating conditions.” Brien additionally acicular to a Quantitative Blow Assessment (QRA) performed by Mobil in 1994 as allotment of the accord decree process, which assured that the hydrofluoric acerbic units application the adapted actinic admixture were “24 times safer than a sulfuric acerbic assemblage of the aforementioned size.”

But Hayati and added activists, citation annal acquired through bounded and bounded agencies, accept argued that the “testing and modeling” cited by ToRC are bare in assessing risk, because the models accept college concentrations of sulfolane and added baseline altitude that don’t administer in a alive refinery. Their efforts accept encouraged the local Air Quality Monitoring District to investigate the refinery’s assurance claims and to nudge the EPA to review its blow administering plans. The federal Actinic Assurance and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has additionally subpoenaed above Torrance buyer ExxonMobil for added advice apropos MHF, and U.S. Representatives Maxine Waters and Ted Lieu, whose districts accommodate portions of Torrance, accept both apprenticed for a federal delving into the 2015 access and the refinery’s assurance claims — partly based on affirmation baldheaded by the aborigine sleuths.

Koopman — now an absolute assurance adviser alive with both the industry and ecology groups — said he’s apparent abundant of the TRAA’s assignment and that he finds it credible. He additionally appropriate that any affirmation that the concentrations of sulfolane acclimated at ToRC and adjacent Valero refineries would anticipate a adverse aerosol absolution of hydrofluoric acerbic are “mere speculation.”

“I feel actual acerb that the botheration we discovered, that hydrofluoric acerbic would beam into an aerosol, would additionally appear beneath the altitude that these refineries use,” Koopman said. “But you charge abstracts to accomplish abiding and those haven’t been done. The industry keeps its assignment proprietary, but if they had absolute affidavit that the accretion would breach the problem, it would be out there.”

Three added U.S. refineries use MHF, and all but one are amid in the average of above city areas. Hayati speculated that the industry’s affirmation on claiming the assurance of MHF, admitting the abridgement of peer-reviewed studies — or any studies — is a amount of necessity. Because activists are able in southern California, area two of the four U.S. refineries that use MHF are located, they accept the abeyant to force bounded bans, which could, in turn, be the afterlife bell for the use of hydrofluoric acerbic nationwide. “The industry considers MHF to be basic in extenuative hydrofluoric acerbic from regulation. Any hydrofluoric acerbic refinery association that demands its aishment is fed the MHF story,” Hayati said. “Maintaining an aspect of agnosticism is the alone affair continuing amid them and a ban.”

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A2017 report from the CSB airtight the antecedent buyer of the Torrance ability for abundant assurance violations. Beneath new ownership, workers at the ability say things accept abundantly improved, admitting Wright, the United Steelworkers representative, said the connected use of hydrofluoric acerbic remained an adventitious risk. “We anticipate that if you accept to booty a lot of measures to accumulate an operation safe, you’re bigger off activity to article that absolutely can’t accept an accident, instead of demography all kinds of measures to basically abate the blow that ability happen,” Wright said.

For its part, ToRC still insists that brief to sulfuric acerbic would accomplish the association beneath safe — a position that Wright and the United Steelworkers additionally hold, accustomed that sulfuric acerbic would appear with its own problems, including a charge for beyond equipment, beyond acerbic volumes, college greenhouse gas emissions, and abundant added use of barter transport. Still, both the Administering of Homeland Security (DHS) and the EPA bent that there is no aerial crisis to the association from the absolution of sulfuric acid. The DHS account of alarming chemicals identifies hydrofluoric acid, but not sulfuric acid. The few refineries architecture alkylation units from blemish today are additionally allotment sulfuric acerbic over HF/MHF.

In an email, ToRC agent Brien additionally acicular to an alfresco abstraction that estimated the amount of converting from MHF to sulfuric acerbic at ToRC would be about $1 billion — $600 actor up front, with an added $300 actor bare for an acerbic about-face plant. The nonprofit Center for Accessible Integrity, however, cited an industry cardboard that estimated the amount of retrofitting a archetypal hydrofluoric acerbic alkylation assemblage to use sulfuric acerbic to be abundant beneath — amid $50 actor and $150 actor for anniversary refinery, depending on the size. 

Two another technologies — ionic liquids and solid acerbic agitator — carry none of the inherent risks of hydrofluoric acid/MHF or sulfuric acid. But alone one refinery has committed to retrofit its absolute alkylation assemblage to one of these alternatives: Chevron, which will use ionic liquids technology in its Salt Lake City, Utah refinery. Marketed by UOP, a accessory of Honeywell, which invented the hydrofluoric acerbic processes for refineries added than seven decades ago, the actuality is abundant easier to accommodate and handle than hydrofluoric acerbic or sulfuric acid, according to Honeywell UOP agent John Simley. He speculated that the industry will alone activate phasing out hydrofluoric acerbic already newer technologies prove themselves cost-effective. 

“There’s activity to be a blitz to be cardinal two” in adopting new technology, Simley said. “That’s archetypal of the industry that is blow afraid in abounding ways.” 

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ToRC’s Brien said that solid acerbic and ionic liquids processes still “need to be accurate commercially viable” from both believability and scalability perspectives. But Wright says he considers this to be bald foot-dragging. “It’s a little artful for the industry to say these [new technologies] are untested, because they care to be testing them,” Wright said. “It’s their industry. They’re the ones that are creating the risk, and they’ve got to be attractive for alternatives.”

Regulators, so far, accept been afraid to force the industry’s duke by banning hydrofluoric acerbic outright, and the CSB, while able to accomplish recommendations, has no ascendancy to bulldoze their adoption. To date, the accompaniment of California has appear aing to outlawing the chemical, and the South Coast Air Quality Administering District (AQMD) launched a rule-making accomplishment in 2017 to activate phasing out hydrofluoric acid, but it backed off an closing ban afterwards a alternation of accessible hearings and cogent pushback from the industry. 

A admeasurement anesthetized in the crumbling canicule of the Obama administering does bulldoze companies that use chemicals with a aerial built-in hazard to at atomic analysis inherently safer methods. And while the Trump administering attempted to adjournment the accomplishing of that measure, a federal court blocked that accomplishment aftermost month. Still, Wright considers the new rules “weak tea,” arguing that petroleum companies are absurd to appear out with studies assuming the alternatives are bigger and amount effective. 

Meanwhile, the 2015 Torrance Refinery bang prompted the access of three bills for new assurance standards on refineries in California. A fourth bill, which would accept banned hydrofluoric acerbic outright, adjourned in the legislature. 

Without bans on hydrofluoric acerbic at the bounded or accompaniment level, those aflutter of what could appear in a low-probability, high-consequence blow charge abode their hopes on the industry voluntarily converting to a safer alternative. 


Ron Koopman, who is currently consulting for the South Coast AQMD, said that so far, worst-case scenarios accept been averted because about every adventitious absolution of hydrofluoric acerbic has complex a fire. That’s a acceptable affair from a accessible assurance standpoint, he said. “The blaze takes the [hydrofluoric acid] beeline up in the air, mixes it with air, and reduces the concentration. 

“It’s a advantageous break,” he added, “and the industry has a history of advantageous breaks.”

Read added at The Daily Beast.

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