The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s move to recommend a ban on highly dangerous modified hydrofluoric acid (MHF) used at two Southland refineries is the only sensible thing to do in the wake of a 2015 explosion at one of them that could have severely burned or killed thousands.
Used to boost octane in gasoline, MHF can release a lethal ground-hugging cloud threatening people within miles of an explosion. Virtually all the other refineries in the state, except Valero's Wilmington plant, use safer sulfuric acid. The massive 2015 explosion at a Torrance refinery then owned by Exxon could have been catastrophic if a hunk of metal had hit thousands of stored gallons of MHF.
Exxon itself caused that explosion when managers told workers to keep running a damaged compressor while they tried to fix it. Fumes collected in lines leading to a 12-story air pollution filtration system and exploded, blowing the structure practically to bits. Exxon was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for safety violations, including deliberately failing to make the repairs they knew were needed previously to avoid accidents.
Independent refiner PBF Energy, the new owner of the Torrance plant, has so far resisted switching away from MHF, and Valero has been mum on the issue. PBF’s own fire, which broke out in November as maintenance workers repaired a section of pipe near a processing unit using MHF, suggests a ban can’t happen fast enough.
Another option for switching away from MHF includes using a new technology in the early stages of commercialization called solid acid alkylation, according to a comparative study done by Norton Engineering for air regulators.
There’s a real argument to be made for that. Switching from MHF to sulfuric acid raises a refinery’s operating costs because of the increased power needed for refrigeration and pumping. On top of that, significantly more sulfuric acid is used than hydrofluoric acid, raising costs still more. And then why risk truck or railway accidents to transport sulfuric acid in and out? Sulfuric acid spills are no joke—the acid can cause serious burns to flesh, though it’s less likely to form a toxic cloud.
Solid acid catalyst is benign--it doesn't form toxic clouds and does not need to be transported in. Once it's spent, it can be recycled elsewhere for reuse. Plus, the price tag between converting to sulfuric acid or solid acid catalyst is comparable. Sometimes it takes regulation to prod industries into the future, and this choice seems like a no brainer. It's worth a $100 million investment to increase efficiency, lower operating costs, and keep the public safe. That's the kind of PR you can't buy.