Why a Southern California Refinery Explosion Could Kill Thousands

One morning in February 2015, I felt a rumble. Was it an earthquake? No. It was an explosion at the ExxonMobil oil refinery a few miles away. The refinery is located in the middle of a residential area of Torrance, Calif.

The explosion was scary enough. But even scarier, as we residents found out later, was that it was a near catastrophe. It sent a 40-ton piece of equipment flying and landing only three feet from a tank storing modified hydrofluoric acid (MHF), a deadly chemical that can eat right through bones. If the MHF had been released, it would have created a toxic cloud that could have drifted 15 miles from the refinery, sickening and killing hundreds of thousands of people in Los Angeles County.

Yet many of the news stories at the time focused on the explosion causing gasoline prices to soar because the refinery had to be shut down for 15 months. ExxonMobil officials insisted residents were never in danger.

During the two years that have passed since the explosion, there have been several “safety issues” at the refinery, including fires and a blackout. In July 2016, ExxonMobil sold the refinery to PBF Energy, and it’s now called the Torrance Refinery Company. But little has changed besides the name. MHF is still stored there.

This deadly acid is stored at only one other refinery in the state the Valero refinery in Wilmington, about 12 miles away. All the other refineries use much safer sulfuric acid. Although the hydrofluoric acid stored at the Torrance Refinery has been modified to contain 10 percent of a vapor suppressant additive, it is still extremely dangerous.

HF is “one of the most hazardous and potentially deadly chemicals used in the oil-refining process,” said U.S. Chemical Safety Board member Rick Engler in a recent comprehensive story about the explosion co-written by KPCC and the Center for Public Integrity.

The refinery said it would be too expensive to remove the MHF it claimed it would cost $300 million, while an independent study estimated the cost to be more like $100 million. Torrance city officials claim they have no say in it, although they could pass an ordinance regulating MHF. But that’s not likely to happen since the refinery is a huge cash cow for the city. In August, an article praising the refinery’s safety was published on the city website with no indication it was actually an advertisement written by the refinery. When residents complained, the city apologized and removed it.

Citizens Form Grassroots Groups to Save Lives

Frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the refinery or support from the city, Torrance residents formed two groups in a grassroots effort to make people safer: South Bay FLARE (Families Lobbying Against Refinery Exposures) and the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance (TRAA).

“The refinery holds 250,000 pounds of modified hydrofluoric acid,” Dr. Sally Hayati, president of the TRAA, told the Daily Breeze after a flash fire occurred near the MHF storage unit in mid-November. “The Department of Homeland Security calls it a chemical of interest for terrorist use in amounts over 1,000 pounds. This is a risk too great.

In promising news, last month the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the air pollution control agency for urban areas of Los Angeles, promised to “look at a rule phasing out hydrofluoric acid.”

This decision was based on the in-depth findings published by Hayati and other citizen scientists who took it upon themselves to conduct technical analyses.

The AQMD’s pledge to ban MHF by the end of the year is indeed encouraging but could it potentially be overruled by the anti-EPA, pro-oil industry Trump administration? The fact that the secretary of state is Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson doesn’t bode well at all. If I had my druthers, the refinery would be shut down completely but, unfortunately, that’s clearly not going to happen.

How to Take Action

If you live in the Los Angeles area, a rally and march supporting the ban of MHF is being held in Torrance on Feb. 18, the second anniversary of that near-catastrophic explosion.

Another explosion at the refinery (or even a moderate earthquake) could result in injury and death to hundreds of thousands of people. Please sign and share this petition urging state lawmakers to save lives by banning MHF from refineries.

Photo credit: YouTube

68 comments

Marie W
Marie W3 days ago

Thank you for sharing

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill24 days ago

This is why we need to build more & newer refineries. They haven't built a new one since Jimmy Carter was president!

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Chen Boon Fook
Chen Boon Fook3 months ago

Thank you.

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Nang Hai C
Nang Hai C3 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Sherri S
Sherri S3 months ago

These big oil companies don't give a damn about local citizens or their workers. They just care about the workers at the top of the food chain and making a profit.

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Rosslyn O
Rosslyn O3 months ago

We have had dealings with this acid during the older gold processing, and have met people who have had thumbs or finger removed to stop the acid continuing to 'eat' the bones into the hand. Nasty stuff. We were pleased that it was banned for general use as too many idiots were having access to it. We humans are fairly good at making toxins, but then have no idea of how to dispose of them or store them in total safety! This is a disaster waiting to happen sadly. I signed.

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Margie F
Margie F3 months ago

Who do we have to blame but ourselves.

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Philippa P
Philippa P3 months ago

If this isn't stopped, it's only a matter of time until we make the planet uninhabitable.

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Patricia Harris
Patricia H3 months ago

As I've said a-thousand, frigging times already: It's up to ALL of us to do something about this crisis. NOT just those who declared themselves ''in power'' When it comes down to urgent situations like this one, we are ALL in power. Therefore, we ALL have the power to do something about it. Why must you wimps always have make things more difficult than they already are??? This is just as much our responsibility to fix human-made errors as it is those in charge. I swear to you that, if you people don't start taking my ''HelpMeOut'' speeches seriously, I'm going to do something I will soon regret. I know you all think I'm crazy, and maybe I am. But I'll tell you this, I'm crazy about this wonderful planet that I'm so proud to call ''Home'' and all it's animals that I'm so proud to call my ''Neighbors''. Please, please, please don't let them take that away from me... I BEG OF YOU!!!

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Patricia Harris
Patricia H3 months ago

Lorraine Andersen, you say that nothing will be done, but that simply implies that there's no longer any ''good'' people in this world. Who are you kidding?

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