The Case Against HF

The Danger

Among the world’s most dangerous industrial chemicals, hydrogen fluoride (HF) is used in massive quantities in two of California’s 15 refineries: the Torrance Refining Company (ToRC) and Valero in Wilmington — both located in the densely populated South Bay region of Southern California. In a major accidental release, as shown in an alarming video, HF forms a ground-hugging cloud that can drift for miles, causing irreversible injury and death.

Who’s At Risk?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses Emergency Response Planning Guidelines (ERPGs) to assess worst-case scenarios. Residents inside the red circles below are at risk of serious and irreversible health effects (ERPG-⁠2). Those inside the black circles are at risk of life-threatening health effects (ERPG-⁠3). Those downwind of an HF release  are exposed. 

These ERPG 2 & 3 Worst Case Scenario (WCS) circles for Torrance Refining (left) and Valero (right) were calculated with NOAA’s air-hazard modeling program ALOHA for HF release from single alkylation settler tanks, according to the guidelines of the EPA’s Risk Management Plan (RMP) instructions for Offsite Consequence Analysis. The quantities of HF in the tanks (6,000 gallons for Torrance Refining & 7,000 gallons for Valero) are from a briefing [page 2] by the SCAQMD Staff, which had purview into the refineries’ proprietary data. The two refineries store far more HF on site (25,000 gallons at Torrance Refining & 55,000 gallons at Valero), which is of great concern. The computed distances from the refineries to the ERPG 2 & 3 toxic endpoints are 5.3 & 3.5 miles for Torrance Refining and 5.6 & 3.7 miles for Valero, respectively. (Click map image to view full size in a new tab.)

The Big Lie

Torrance Refining Company and Valero make fraudulently false claims about an additive, sulfolane, they say makes HF safe enough to use in the densely populated South Bay. They call the mixture “modified” HF, or MHF.

Congressman Ted Lieu

In fact, Torrance Refining Company and Valero’s Big Lie about this ineffective additive is the primary reason we have HF in the two refineries today. It was at the center of their arguments to government regulators and the courts that allows them to continue to use HF. Congressman Ted Lieu was entirely correct when he said the South Bay community had been “hoodwinked” into believing an additive mixed into the acid actually made it any safer, when there was no evidence that was the case. Of the approximately 50 refineries across the nation that still use HF, only  ToRC and Valero use the additive. If it had the safety effectiveness claimed, one would think at least some HF refineries in the world outside the South Bay would use it. None do.

For MHF not to interfere with the refining process, the refineries keep the concentration of the additive as low as one molecule for every 100 molecules of HF (1% molar concentration). Like Dumbo’s feather, the additive has no real purpose, except to dupe regulators and the courts to allow the refineries to continue to use HF — it does nothing to make the South Bay a safer place to live. Members of TRAA’s Science Advisory Panel thoroughly debunked the refineries’ additive claims in three articles here, here, and here.

For decades, ToRC and Valero have hidden test data on the additive’s lack of effectiveness behind a wall of proprietary secrecy. In the AQMD’s most recent attempt to ban HF, its technical staff became the first and only government entity to view the voluminous data. It concluded [page 4&5], “the testing/modeling information provided by TORC did not sufficiently demonstrate MHF would not flash atomize and form a dense HF cloud.” The AQMD staff also independently confirmed [page 22] TRAA’s indisputable assertion that there was “No testing conducted at current operating conditions.”

ToRC and Valero’s Big Lie was on full public display at the AQMD Refinery Committee Meeting in Wilmington, California on September 22, 2018. Two invited presenters — acknowledged as among the world’s leading experts on the dangers of hydrogen-fluoride use in refineries — were asked The $64,000 Question: “Does MHF behave the same as HF?” Both experts testified that the additive would have a very small effect, and they weren’t aware of any data that supports the refineries’ claims for it.

TRAA Initiatives

Campaign Urging Governor Gavin Newsom To Request an Investigation of the Torrance Refining Company & Wilmington’s Valero Refinery
Copy of the letter to Governor Gavin Newsom being delivered to the Torrance Refining Company at 8:50.a.m. on Tuesday, February 18, 2020, the precise time of the the 5th Anniversary of the February 18, 2015 Torrance Refinery Explosion. 

On February 18, 2020 — the five-year anniversary of the Torrance refinery explosion — TRAA announced a campaign urging Governor Gavin Newsom to request the Attorney General to investigate — based on newly available irrefutable evidence — the lack of basis for two legal processes that allow the Torrance Refining Company and Wilmington’s Valero Refinery to use massive amounts of hydrogen fluoride that imperil the surrounding communities. An investigation is the essential precursor to a lawsuit by the State Attorney General to ban the use of HF in the refineries.

TRAA Voter Advisory Project

The TRAA Voter Advisory Panel has been newly formed to provide voters with information on candidates whose views most closely align  with TRAA’s. Their voter recommendations will be posted on this website’s In The News blog.

TRAA National Campaign

Motivated by TRAA friend and former Managing Director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board Daniel HorowitzNew York Times Opinion Piece This Chemical Kills. Why Aren’t Regulators Banning It?, TRAA has stepped onto the national scene in support of President Biden’s Executive Order Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science To Tackle the Climate Crisis. In its first foray, TRAA coordinated spoken and written comments on the dangers of HF for EPA’s virtual public listening sessions on an enlightened Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule and submitted a proposed amendment to the RMP Rule that would compel refineries to convert from HF to a vastly safer alternative.

Informing the Public about Vastly Safer HF Alternatives

Besides informing the public about the hazards of HF, TRAA is equally committed to informing the public about vastly safer alternatives. These include:

  • Sulfuric-Acid Catalyst, used in Chevron’s El Segundo refinery and in about half of the nation’s refineries using an alkylation catalyst. Cost-effective conversion from HF is offered by DuPont.
  • Ionic-Liquid Catalyst, developed by Chevron and used in the recent conversion of its Salt Lake City refinery from HF.
  • Solid-Acid Catalyst, which is being used in refineries in China and is currently being introduced to U.S. refineries.
TRAA’s New Website & Newsletter

The Torrance Refinery Action Alliance has updated its website and added an In The News blog to focus on the latest news of the efforts to transition refineries, both locally and across the nation, from highly dangerous HF alkylation to a vastly safer process. The redesigned TRAA Newsletter serves as the “paperboy” to get the word out.