Ryan McDonald

Hermosa Beach City Council mulls response to refinery bills

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A view of the Torrance refinery, obscured by a barbed wire fence running along Madrona Ave. Photo by Ryan McDonald

by Ryan McDonald

The Hermosa Beach City Council voted Tuesday night to hold off on issuing a letter of support for a series of proposed state laws affecting the Torrance Refinery, signaling concern about regional impacts from the refinery but also uncertainty about the bills’ potential effects and disagreement over the extent to which Hermosa should involve itself in regional environmental issues.

After discussion and occasionally tense questioning of officials from PBF Energy, which owns the Torrance Refining Company, council members agreed to hold off on a letter while staff gathered information from other bodies that have yet to take a position on the issue, including the Torrance City Council, the South Bay Cities Council of Governments and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The issue will return to the council in at most six months.

“These bills are in their infancy, so we have a little bit of time. We don’t have unlimited time,” said Mayor Justin Massey, who agreed to delay a decision, but also expressed vigorous support for the ideas contained in the bill. He noted that while the regional organizations the council was looking to had not yet weighed in, others — including Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and the Los Angeles County Board Of Supervisors — already have supported it.

The five proposed laws come from Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, whose South Bay district includes both Hermosa and Torrance. While the refinery’s owners have agreed to the goals embodied in Assembly bills 1646 through 1649, they object to AB 1645, which would ban the use of modified hydrofluoric acid in the refining process.

Community groups like the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance have been pushing for vigorously for a ban on the use of modified hydrofluoric acid, or “MHF,” since an explosion at the Torrance facility in Feb. 2015 forced a year-long closure. (The refinery was operated by ExxonMobil at the time of the explosion; New Jersey-based PBF took over in June 2016.) A tank full of modified hydrofluoric acid narrowly escaped severe damage during the explosion. A study of the incident by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board concluded that, had the tank been hit, the acid could have vaporized and formed a toxic cloud that, blown by prevailing winds, could sicken and potentially kill people in an area stretching for miles around the refinery, including Hermosa.

The Torrance refinery is one of only two in California that uses MHF in the refining process; others rely on sulfuric acid. But PBF officials have cautioned that sulfuric acid is a far less efficient chemical catalyst. And, they said Tuesday, converting the existing refinery to use sulfuric acid could prove cost prohibitive.

Michael Karlovich, vice president of communications for PBF, criticized as grossly low an estimate released last year by the AQMD and Norton Engineering that put the price of converting to sulfuric acid at $100 million. He said that the company had commissioned an engineering firm to produce its own study.

Andrew DeBlock, Muratsuchi’s senior field representative, said the legislature had not yet analyzed the financial impact of the bills. But Muratsuchi has said previously that he has no intent to force the refinery to close.

The decision to delay centered on the need for more information, but inevitably revealed council priorities on the underlying issue. Councilmember Carolyn Petty, for example, compared the small amount of information the council had on the refinery to extensive research done on oil drilling in the city, but also voiced sympathy with the concerns raised by PBF, including the effect of the refinery’s closure on prices at the pump.

“I actually care about what happens to the people who can’t afford to pay another dollar for a gallon of gas,” Petty said.

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