Steven Steach, Torrance Refinery Plant Manager, Presenting at North Torrance HOA Meeting
Steven Steach, the current plant manager for the Torrance Refining Company (TRC), along with other company officials recently participated in a community meeting sponsored by the North Torrance HOA where they addressed many questions and concerns from the community and gave a brief background on the company and its current operations.
Purchase From ExxonMobil (Exxon)
According to Steach, Exxon had initially put the refinery up for sale in 2013. PBF Energy (PBF) made an offer at that time which Exxon rejected because they thought it was too low. Exxon did, however, accept an offer from a consortium of investment banking groups but that deal fell through when the investment bankers walked away from the deal after the explosion in February 2015.
After that deal fell apart, Exxon contacted PBF to see if there was still any interest. PBF made a lower offer than they did previously and a deal for $537 Million was announced in October of 2015. Interestingly, the refinery was not the main value of the purchase as $350 Million of the final price was actually for the M-70 pipeline and its tanks and pump stations that runs to the San Joaquin Valley. Thus, the refinery was only valued at $187 Million. In Steach’s estimation, that firesale price for the refinery showed you how badly Exxon wanted to get rid of the property.
Torrance Refining Company
Steach claims that TRC is actively engaged in trying to change the culture of the refinery. They want to be a good neighbor and operate the refinery in a safe and reliable fashion with a culture of responsibility, accountability, team work and open communication. Some interesting details shared about the refinery included:
- Refinery has enthused workforce but lacks experience with a lot of young engineers;
- The refinery employs 626 people and an additional 500 contractors;
- The refinery provides high-paying jobs with average wages plus benefits equaling $128K a year; and
- According to Steach, every refinery job creates 9 other jobs in the local economy
Relationship with Southern California Edison (SCE)
Steach described the relationship Exxon had with SCE as adversarial but said his team had been meeting with them on a weekly basis since last April and that they now have a good relationship and are working to resolve issues.
November 2016 Flare Fire
This fire occurred during a flare line isolation job. Steach apologized for the incident and said his previous Operations Manager was at fault. He said, “I thought my Operations Manager had the same under understanding I did of how to isolate the equipment. He didn’t. That was the last straw and I replaced him and we brought in a new Ops Manager. I do apologize for that.”
Use of Hydrofluoric Acid (HF)
Steach recognized HF as a hazard, but also wanted the community to know that the alternative, sulfuric acid, also posed significant dangers. In his words:
“As refiner’s we appreciate the hazards of HF, but the primary concern is corrosion. We have to understand the corrosion rates on our equipment and manage that. That’s our number one fear … Because we have to know when to replace that piping before it gets too thin. Sulfuric Acid is a challenge on corrosion.”
He also expressed a willingness to release more information to the public on the issue by stating:
“We met with experts in HF Akllyation this week, went through all the history of the consent decree, and all the proprietary reports and I know we are going to have to release these things to the people, especially the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance (TRAA). I know no one is going to believe us unless we release the reports and at the right time we will.”
Steach took issue with the conclusion from the Norton Study that they could convert from HF to sulfuric acid in 6 months for $100 Million. He conveyed that it wasn’t economically viable for a refinery to spend triple its value to convert. He felt the cost would be so much higher because the Norton Study, among other things, did not account for how much new equipment the refinery would have to purchase to convert.
The meeting concluded with a lively Q&A session as Steach took several questions from the audience.
Q. Of the 18 effectively operating refineries in California only two, including Torrance, use HF. Why have they moved on and you haven’t?
A: There is really only like 10 refineries. You are throwing things in there like asphalt plants that are not refiners. The industry is split 50/50. If you look at the industry there are about 150 alkylation plants around the country. 51% of them are HF. It just so happens that in California that’s how it ended up.
Q: Some of the refiners converted from HF, is that right?
A: No one has ever converted from HF to Sulfuric Acid. No one has ever done it. The new plants being built are sulfuric because of the public’s concerns. I’ll grant you that, but there are a lot of HF plants out there. There are 4 that use modified HF. We are one of those, but there are none that have the safety systems that we do.
Q: What about the Chevron plant in Salt Lake City that is changing their HF plant to liquid ions?
It’s interesting. There is a new technology out there called liquid ions that is actually a solid at room temperature. It’s a salt. It’s non-toxic. In theory, if they could get it to work you could do a conversion. They have some technical issues on re-generation they still have to resolve. The start-up for that is not until 2019. I’m interested to see if they resolve the start-up issues. We have too much at stake here. We don’t want to be running test plants in the middle of the City of Torrance, but if they prove that thing we’ll be first in line to go and we’ll take a group of people and go look at it.
Q: You compared the safety of the refinery to the safety mechanisms of an airplane. My son who is three blocks away from you could choose to go on an airplane, but he can’t choose where he can live and play. Recently I got another text about a fire at the refinery and I was panicky and wondered what I should do with my son. Should I leave him outside? I was looking for more information and I found where you have had many incidents. Why are all these fires happening?
A. There was a recent sewer fire. The heavy rains caused the main drain of oily water to break and we also found a sinkhole around that same time. To repair that, we have to pump the oil to the other side of the plant through an underpass or we have to shut down the refinery. We chose to pump it over and we’ve been working on getting that done. The sewer fire was related to that, but we don’t know why. The top metal hatches of the sewer box near where we put the temporary lines blew off and there was some oil inside that burned.
Q. What about flaring?
A. AQMD regulates flaring. There is planned and unplanned flaring where we have to notify AQMD. Planned flaring occurs during events like start-ups. An unplanned flaring event is usually when something malfunctions.
Q. What about HF?
A. On the acid issue, we haven’t had our say. It has all been TRAA putting stuff out. We are the new guy. Exxon chose not to share the facts. We do have to get approval to share some of this stuff as it is incumbent upon us to prove to you that what I’m saying is the truth.
Q. You say your ops manager didn’t know how to do the job you described. Don’t you have procedures or an operations manual that would tell you how to do it? How does it look if you have upper level management that don’t know how to follow the operations manual?
A. It doesn’t look good. He was an Exxon employee that I took on. After that, I made a change of management. He’s accountable. I’m accountable. That shouldn’t have happened. Our procedures said there should have been a gas test before that valve was opened.
Q. What do you do in an earthquake?
A. We upgrade the refinery to meet all earthquake safety standards every 5 years in accordance with current safety regulations.
Q. Have you had any HF leaks?
A. We have had none since we began operating. We can’t speak for the previous owner.
Q. You won’t provide us the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), but as near as we can tell the modified HF you currently use is 90% HF with a 10% additive, is that correct?
A. The numbers out there are all wrong. I can tell you that. The stuff I’ve seen from TRAA. They are missing two major components of the acid. They are assuming everything is not additive and I don’t even know if their additive numbers are right. I don’t think so. They are missing water which is 5 or 6 times more effective than the additive. That’s a big component. They are also missing acid soluble oils which is a big component in the acid.
Q. If TRAA is wrong as you say, when then will you share all the information?
A. We do plan on having public meetings to share all the information. I realize there is no trust. That is really the issue. This was all decided with a judge with a lot of technical people. People don’t trust the outcome. They don’t trust the previous owner. They don’t know us. So we have to build trust.
Q. With regard to building trust, oftentimes when there is an incident it appears the community receives conflicting or inaccurate information. For example, not long ago there was a suspicious odor. People didn’t know if it came from the refinery. Some thought it was the Torrance sewer system. Based on the subsequent reporting, it appeared the refinery knew what happened right from the beginning but that information was not initially shared. Sometimes there is a flare and you get a TorranceAlert that says it was planned and then another saying it was unplanned or one saying it was a power outage and another report saying a mylar baloon. How can the refinery improve communications?
A. We have to notify Torrance Fire Department (TFD) within minutes if anything whatsoever happens. If something is going on, we establish a joint command and we make a joint command call. All the communication that goes to the public is controlled by TFD and the officers of emergency services. They decide if a TorranceAlerts goes out and if they do send one they decide the wording. That is how the communication works. We are trying to work with TFD to improve the communication, but that is an issue. We acknowledge that.
Q. How can the community help?
A. Be open minded. Listen to the facts. Let both sides tell their story and make a decision on facts. Look at the source of the data. Just because something is printed in the newspaper and printed as a reference doesn’t make it a fact. That’s all I ask, to be treated fairly like everybody else. For example, there are HF users all over the state of California but they are just picking on us.