While federal regulation has stagnated, local activism in the wake of the 2015 accident spurred Southern California regulators to revive a 27-year-old effort to ban HF. “Let’s see if we can phase this out to provide an extra level of protection for the public,” Philip Fine, a deputy executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said in an interview.
Separately, California officials have been working on a statewide rule, expected to become final this summer, that would require refinery owners to adopt “inherently safer designs and processes” and give workers a bigger voice in accident prevention. That effort began after another disaster that didn’t involve HF: a massive 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, north of San Francisco. More than 15,000 people sought medical treatment for respiratory and other symptoms related to toxic-smoke inhalation.
More than 100 refineries are among 1,900 facilities considered “high risk” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meaning they are prone to terrorist attacks or accidents that imperil surrounding communities. An EPA analysis found that oil and coal- products manufacturing, which includes refining, had the highest rates of chemical accidents. Many refinery owners, however, have postponed maintenance and equipment upgrades while ramping up production — increasing the odds of deadly mishaps.
The Chemical Safety Board, which is investigating the 2015 Torrance accident, called the blast at the 750-acre refinery a “near miss” that fell just short of a “catastrophe,” faulting poor maintenance by ExxonMobil, which had delayed repairs to cut costs.
ExxonMobil has challenged those claims. In an email, a spokesman wrote that “there was no evidence” the incident “posed any risk of harm to the community” from HF. He also wrote that there are “no safer or commercially viable alternatives” to the chemical and denied that ExxonMobil cut corners on maintenance.
The company is contesting more than a half-million dollars in state fines and has refused to fully cooperate with safety board investigators, even though it sold the refinery in September 2015 for $538 million to PBF Energy, a New Jersey company known for buying distressed properties at steep discounts. Like ExxonMobil, PBF has reassured Torrance residents that the operation is safe and that the company is “focused on continuous improvement,” despite a spate of recent problems.
The scare in Torrance could have been avoided if federal rules had been stronger, said Rick Hind, legislative director at Greenpeace USA. After years of industry pushback, the EPA updated its Risk Management Program in December, requiring facilities like the Torrance refinery to report near-misses and urging communities to improve emergency response.
But the rule — which is subject to undoing by the Trump administration — didn’t address prevention, Hind said. “When you use the word ‘risk,’ just substitute the word ‘gamble’ and it takes on a different urgency,” he said. “We’re just again gambling with the future of millions of workers and community residents.”