One small Santa Fe Springs oil refinery said it would have to close and another said its existence would be threatened if air quality officials enact a proposed ban on the bulk use of hydrofluoric acid at their plants.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District says the ban is needed to prevent a potential catastrophe that could threaten the lives of thousands living near four Southland refineries and a refrigerant manufacturing plant that use the acutely hazardous substance.
Although the four refineries that use the substance have previously complained about the financial burden of converting to less volatile sulfuric acid, the statements by the Golden West and Powerine spokesmen during an AQMD hearing Friday mark the first time that industry officials have said refineries might have to close.
A final hearing on the proposed ban, which is to include comment on environmental and socioeconomic impact reports, is scheduled for Dec. 7.
Both sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids are used in a process that boosts the octane of unleaded gasoline.
The AQMD has previously cited industry-sponsored tests that showed a two-minute release of 1,000 gallons of hydrofluoric acid would form a dense, ground-hugging cloud of gas and vapor that could threaten life five miles downwind. Also cited was a history of accidents that resulted in large-scale releases of the substance.
At Friday's hearing, Golden West spokesman David Drag said flatly that a hydrofluoric acid ban "would force the closure of the refinery" and that the immediate consequences would be the loss of 250 refinery jobs, as well as 1,000 positions in the Thrifty Oil gas station chain. Noting that Thrifty, Golden West's main customer for gasoline, is the area's largest independent gasoline retailer, Drag said the ban "would result in higher gasoline prices" for consumers.
Powerine spokesman David Moore said the refinery "would be placed in jeopardy" by elimination of hydrofluoric acid. He said tight space on refinery grounds would prevent the refinery from constructing a sulfuric acid unit while continuing to operate the hydrofluoric acid unit.
Two larger refineries--Mobil in Torrance and Ultramar in Wilmington--also use the chemical to boost the octane of unleaded gasoline and also oppose the regulation, but they have stopped short of saying the conversion to sulfuric acid would force a closure. At the hearing, Ultramar proposed a study, review and possible conversion process that could take up to 13 years.
Allied Signal, the fifth large-scale user that also would come under the proposed ban, uses hydrofluoric acid to make refrigerants and has said it would have to close its El Segundo plant because no substitute exists for hydrofluoric acid in its process.
In addition to the economic consequences, industry consultant Geoffrey Kaiser said the air quality agency was premature in declaring that hydrofluoric acid poses an unacceptable risk. Kaiser said the agency should first set a uniform standard for acceptable risk before imposing a ban and then measure the risk of a serious accident involving continued hydrofluoric acid against that standard.
But Kaiser declined to answer when AQMD planning director Barry Wallerstein asked him how many people would have to suffer serious consequences before an incident would be rated a major accident.
"I would prefer to defer that," Kaiser said.
In the largest recent accident involving hydrofluoric acid, 4,000 people were evacuated in 1987 when a cloud of hydrofluoric acid vapors escaped from the Marathon refinery in Texas City, Tex. The accident resulted when a 30-ton piece of equipment fell from a crane onto pipes from a tank that contained thousands of gallons of hydrofluoric acid. About 1,000 people were treated in area hospitals.
Whereas industry spokesmen complained about the proposed regulation during the hearing, Torrance resident Bernie Hollander, a retired chemical engineer, was the only voice at the hearing urging air quality officials to enact the ban.
In his experience, he said, human error was a frequent cause of accidents.
"You can trace it to the corporate mentality" that values production over safety, he said.
As an example, Hollander said a 1987 explosion at Mobil's hydrofluoric acid unit in Torrance happened because safety systems were disabled.