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Air Quality Committee Recommends Rejecting Ban on Toxic Acid

Last month, a committee of the South Coast Air Quality Management District voted to recommend not to ban hydrofluoric acid used at two South Bay oil refineries. Some cheered at the decision, saying a ban would have raised the price of gasoline, but some community groups are alarmed. KVCR's Benjamin Purper checked in with parties on both sides of the question.

Hydrofluoric acid is a highly toxic chemical used to make high-octane gasoline. It’s deadly to humans, meaning that a potential explosion of at one of the two refineries could release deadly gas into surrounding communities in Torrance and Wilmington.

The Republican-controlled Refinery Committee of the South Coast Air Quality Management District voted to recommend not to ban the acid, but instead to support an industry-backed alternative that allows the refineries to keep using it with enhanced safety measures.

Ron Stein with the group PTS Advance says the recommendation, if it is confirmed by the full AQMD board, would be a win for Californians because a ban would most likely force the two refineries to close. That would raise the price of gasoline across the state.

Stein: “It's a win for California because California is an energy island. We are isolated from the entire United States because we've got the Sierra Mountains separating us. And all the fuel manufactured here is consumed here. If we don't manufacture here we'd have to import it from another state or another country which would be humongously more expensive and create more greenhouse gases. So the vote by AQMD was a blessing for all 40 million residents because if they had banned that acid, there would most likely be a closure of two refineries. And we know what happens when a refinery has a turnaround, is out for maybe a month, prices go skyrocketing high. Well this would be a permanent spike if two of them went out of service. So it's definitely a win for all 40 million residents.”                                 

Stein says that a state whose economy relies on gasoline can’t afford to make it any more expensive.

Stein: “I mean our fuel would permanently spike, we're already paying an extra buck a gallon because we have some of the highest state taxes and some of the most stringent environmental regulations on the cost of fuel, and that's - I think the price of gasoline is probably a primary driver of the homeless and poverty rates that we have. It drives the cost of everything up. If it takes more gasoline and more diesel to move products, the cost of tomatoes goes up, the cost of tacos goes up, and everything goes up. And like I say, just providing an incentive to increase prices would be disastrous to the economy.”

But activists like Jesse Marquez with the Coalition for a Safe Environment say the human cost of using hydrofluoric acid is too high.

Marquez: “Our position is that we want a ban and we need a ban. And the reason being is that in Wilmington, we have Valero oil refinery and it's one of the two only refineries in the state of California that is still using hydroflouric acid. Our biggest fear is the fact that if there is any major accident or release of it, it's not just affected, it's toxic. It's deadly and toxic. It causes immediate death. So within two to three minutes of it being released, everyone will be killed within two to three miles. That's how deadly this particular chemical is.”

According to Marquez, the risk of an accident is far too great to allow it to be used in the Wilmington and Torrance refineries. He says there should be legislation in California outlawing its use.

Marquez: “They just want to continue business as usual, and that's not acceptable, because a hundred thousand people could easily be killed within minutes of its release, and we just can't take that chance.”

Correction: The audio for this article stated that the South Coast AQMD voted not to ban hydoflouric acid; however, the motion was only direciton from AQMD's Refinery Committee, to staff, for the development of a memorandum of understanding. The issue will be taken to the South Coast AQMD Board for a final vote in the winter. We apologize for the error.