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Did Exxon misrepresent the Torrance refinery safety record?

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Consumer Watchdog has said that Exxon misrepresented its safety record at its Torrance refinery to lawmakers at a public hearing at Torrance City Hall Last week. The organisation also suggested that the February 18 explosion at the facility was unique and the company did not acknowledge how extensively the blast damaged its ability to supply gasoline. Consumer Watchdog Advocate Liza Tucker said, “the fact is that ExxonMobil’s Torrance facility has had numerous accidents involving hydrocarbon fumes that ignited. The company has paid more than US$15 million in fines for violations of state and federal air standards at its Torrance refinery and terminals since 2005, but these fines are just a cost of doing business.”

The history

At the hearing, Brian Ablett, Torrance Refinery Manager said, that “there hasn’t ever been another incident similar to this at ExxonMobil.” According to media reports, the Torrance plant has suffered or caused at least five accidents involving hydrocarbon fumes:

  • In 1979 a driver on Van Ness Avenue ignited refinery vapours that drifted over and was killed by the fireball.
  • In 1984 superheated oil from a leaky pipe covered cars, homes and clothing and 2500 people filed damage reports.
  • In 1987 a petroleum gas line explosion tied to equipment malfunctions touched off a blaze that took 150 fire fighters to extinguish.
  • In 1994 a butane gas explosion touched off by a leak from a disconnected pipe injured 28 people when safety measures were not followed.
  • In 1999 a broken pipeline spilled isobutene and modified hydrogen fluoride, hospitalising three workers.

Tucker further commented, “we have OSHA, which levies fines on behalf of workers. But refineries are never sanctioned for endangering or hurting local residents, they always get a free pass. Until criminal provisions are applied to refineries, and corporations and their managers are held responsible for knowingly endangering workers and the public, business as usual will continue.”

FCC unit

At the hearing, Ablett said that the fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) unit was shutdown at the time of the explosion and that the accident was centred in a filtration system, built to air regulators’ specifications, that extracts particulate matter and other byproducts. Ablett told regulators, “it was particularly strange there was an explosion.”

Senior Editor of the Bakken Oil Business Journal is reported to have said that refinery workers were indeed repairing a damaged compressor in the FCC unit while leaving the cracker partially running. Bob van der Valk is quoted to have said, “they should have shut it down instead. They made an economic decision, and it was the wrong one.” Van der Valk is also reported to have said that hydrocarbon fumes built up in a line leading to the electrostatic precipitator, which caused the explosion and that a new problem in the crude unit has completely shutdown the refinery’s ability to refine gasoline. “They are out of the gasoline refining business for 4 – 6 months while they repair the unit.”

Tucker’s final comment was, “this sort of misrepresentation and omission of information about safety, infrastructure, and the ability to supply gasoline is why refinery managers should be required to testify under oath.”

Edited from press release by Claira Lloyd

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