Editor’s note: This story was produced in collaboration with Southern California Public Radio.
It’s been nearly two years since Nadia Levine fielded the frantic calls — the first one from her husband, the next from a co-worker.
Panicked, Levine dialed both her children’s schools as she scrolled down the front page of CNN.com on Feb. 18, 2015. A fire raged blocks away from the Torrance, California, home her family had moved into only a month before. On a business trip nearly 3,000 miles away in Connecticut, Levine scrambled to find numbers for neighbors who could check to see whether the house was still standing.
“All I knew at that point was that my kids and husband were alive,” she said. As the smoke cleared, it became evident her worries were far from over.
Just before 9 that morning, pent-up gases at ExxonMobil's Torrance refinery south of Los Angeles had triggered an explosion so massive it registered as a magnitude-1.7 tremor. A five-story processing unit had burst open, spewing industrial ash over a mile away that some mistook for snow and propelling a 40-ton hunk of equipment into the air. The debris had narrowly avoided piercing a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of hydrofluoric acid, or HF — a gas so toxic it corrodes bone.
It was the first Levine had heard of HF. The chemical is used to make high-octane gasoline at about a third of the 141 oil refineries in the United States. If released HF forms a fast-moving, ground-hugging cloud that can cause lasting lung damage, severe burns or death. There are alternatives to HF, but only one U.S. refinery that uses it has voluntarily committed to switch, a process expected to begin this year.
Federal rules, which don’t require such changes, “haven't kept up with the continuing challenge of preventing chemical incidents,” said Rick Engler, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which issues recommendations but has no regulatory authority. He called HF “one of the most hazardous and potentially deadly chemicals used in the oil-refining process.”
Along with environmentalists and union leaders, the board has pushed unsuccessfully for a federal mandate that would require high-hazard industries to consider using safer processes and chemicals. A 41-page study by a consultant last year estimated it would cost roughly $100 million for the Torrance refinery to switch to sulfuric acid, an HF alternative that carries risks of its own but doesn’t pose a sizable threat to the public.