Ryan McDonald

‘Flaring’ at the Torrance Refinery under scrutiny

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Flare stacks burn off excess fuel at the Torrance Refinery last year, when it was owned and operated by ExxonMobil. Photo by Ray Vidal

Flare stacks burn off excess fuel at the Torrance Refinery last year, when it was owned and operated by ExxonMobil. Photo by Ray Vidal

by Ryan McDonald

Tall flares and billowing black smoke released from the Torrance Refinery earlier this month have prompted added concern from nearby residents and increased scrutiny of the refinery from regulators, which may lead to broader reforms for refineries all across Southern California.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, the local agency tasked with air pollution control for much of the region, issued a Notice of Violation to the Torrance Refining Company on Oct. 11. During a “flaring event” that morning, the refinery “discharged such quantities of air contaminants…that caused a nuisance to a considerable number of persons or to the public,” the notice alleges.

The  flaring was caused by an unanticipated power supply interruption from Southern California Edison’s La Fresa substation on Yukon Ave., according to AQMD filings. In addition to the refinery, the power outage affected nearly 100,000 customers in the South Bay Area.

According to PBF Energy, which acquired the Torrance refinery from ExxonMobil earlier this year, flaring is a safety measure, designed to release pressure on refinery facilities and minimize the release of harmful substances into the atmosphere. But the October incident marked at least the fourth time this year that the refinery engaged in flaring.

“The Torrance Refining Co. has been responsible for an unacceptably high number of flaring events resulting from shutdowns at its Torrance facility,” Wayne Nastri, acting executive director for the AQMD, said in a statement.

PBF has said that three of the four incidents are attributable to power outages. (A July incident was reportedly due to a software malfunction at the refinery.) The district brought PBF and Edison together for a meeting on October 18, and the two are in ongoing discussions over how to increase reliability of power delivery to the refinery.

In addition to short-term solutions, the two are discussing at a “dedicated service option” for the plant, SCE said in a statement.

On Friday, the district issued a petition for a stipulated Order of Abatement, which seeks to have the refinery take “all reasonable measures” to minimize nuisances resulting from flaring, including working with Edison. The petition, the contents of which were agreed to by both regulators and the Torrance Refining Company, is a prerequisite to a hearing before an independent AQMD board, which will decide on the conditions to impose on the refinery.

Under AQMD Rule 1118, not all instances of flaring constitute violations, but refineries are required to report any instance of flaring greater than a certain threshold of fuel, said Sam Atwood, media relations manager for the AQMD. The rule is among the strictest in the nation for refineries, and has its roots in observations by staff that refineries were abusing their flaring capabilities.

“Flaring in general is a safety mechanism. But when our Rule 1118 first adopted over 10 years ago, it was recognized by AQMD staff that there really was a lot of flaring going on that was not for emergency events,” Atwood said. “Because it was not all happening during an emergency, the thought was it could be minimized if not eliminated.”

Because not all flaring was strictly necessary, Rule 1118 “put refineries on a diet,” setting levels for each refinery, Atwood said. Today, refineries that exceed the threshold have to pay a mitigation fee, assessed in dollar per pound of flared fuel in excess. In announcing the nuisance violations, the district said that next year it may seek to modify these rules to boost this mitigation penalty, a change that would apply to all refineries and in the region.

In addition to concerns over flaring, the refinery was recently the focus of a report, commissioned by regulators, on its use of modified hydrofluoric acid in the refining process. In the event of an explosion, like the one that rocked the refinery in 2015, hydrofluoric acid could form a toxic cloud with the potential to injure or kill tens of thousands of people in the region. Politicians have called for a halt in the use of the chemical, and the AQMD is hosting a follow-up meeting on the report, to be held this Saturday at 10 a.m. at Torrance City Hall.

The added attention from regulators comes as nearby residents are growing increasingly concerned with the impacts of the flares.

The district has begun interviewing families in the area over their concerns, according to the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. And the community group Families Lobbying Against Refinery Exposures (FLARE), has raised the prospect of flaring releasing harmful chemicals into nearby areas. According to FLARE co-founders Maureen Mauk and Catherine Leys, the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Clean Air has deployed monitoring equipment in the area surrounding the refinery, and detected elevated levels of particulate matter during the time of the flaring.

Particulate matter is one of six criteria air pollutants that the Environmental Protection Agency tasks states with monitoring under the Clean Air Act. According to the EPA, “particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest risks, because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.”

In 2006, the EPA circulated a new federal rule governing PM 2.5, which consists of fine inhalable particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, setting a new 24-hour standard for the material of 35 micrograms per microgram. Monitors deployed downwind of the refinery on October 11 measured spikes of up to 60 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m, according to a statement from FLARE.

Both the Torrance Fire Department and staff from the Torrance Refinery took readings in the area following the flaring, and did not detect any amounts of targeted compounds. Community members argue that they obtained different readings because their equipment was positioned downwind from the refinery and, they say, more accurately reflected conditions in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Betsy Brien, community relations manager for the Torrance Refining Company, said in an email that many factors, including wind and calibration of equipment, can affect air quality monitor readings, and that the refinery deploys monitoring equipment in various places throughout the facility. The refinery, she said, was unaware of the readings from community groups, but would work with them in the future.

“We recognize the community’s concerns, and remain committed to operating the refinery in a safe, reliable and environmentally responsible manner,” Brien said.

The data disagreement underscores an ongoing concern of some community members, who say that by the time the district able to respond to complaints — many of the district’s personnel are located at its Diamond Bar headquarters — the issue at the refinery has often subsided.

Atwood, of the AQMD, acknowledged that there are restrictive requirements for the agency to act on complaints about a facility from residents. For example, in the case of a noxious odor report, an inspector would likely meet with at least half a dozen residents in the area, check for the odor, and trace it back to the facility.

“In many, perhaps most cases of odor violations, we do need to have that field presence: our inspectors verify odors and track them to their sources,” Atwood said.

Although these standards are not expected to change, the AQMD has also announced its intention to begin new rules that could improve the collection of data not just at the Torrance refinery, but at similar facilities all over Southern California.

The district currently operates short term equipment for monitoring PM 2.5, but under potential new rules could require all Southern California refineries to operate and fund more substantial, real-time monitoring equipment. Atwood stressed that such rules were at least a year away and would be preceded by “dozens” of meetings with refineries and community groups. But that they could eventually enhance the complaint-response process.

“We would be looking for a robust, comprehensive monitoring system at the refinery fence lines,” Atwood said.

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