Exxon Misrepresents Torrance Refinery Safety Record and Explosion’s Effect on Gas Prices to Lawmakers at Town Hall Hearing, Consumer Watchdog Says

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Santa Monica, CA —Exxon misrepresented its safety record at its Torrance refinery to lawmakers at a public hearing at Torrance City Hall last week, suggesting its February 18 explosion and fire was unique, and did not acknowledge how extensively the blast damaged its ability to supply gasoline, Consumer Watchdog said today.

“The fact is that ExxonMobil’s Torrance facility has had numerous accidents involving hydrocarbon fumes that ignited,” said Consumer Watchdog advocate Liza Tucker. “The company has paid more than $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.”

At the hearing, Torrance refinery manager Brian Ablett maintained that, “There hasn’t ever been another incident similar to this at Exxon Mobil.”  According to media reports, the Torrance facility had suffered or caused at least five accidents involving hydrocarbon fumes:

•In 1979, a driver on Van Ness Avenue ignited refinery vapors that drifted over and was killed by the fireball.

•In 1984, superheated oil from a leaky pipe covered cars, homes and clothing and 2,500 people filed damage reports.

•In 1987 a petroleum gas line explosion tied to equipment malfunctions touched off a blaze that took 150 firefighters 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 isobutane and modified hydrogen fluoride, hospitalizing three workers.

“We have OSHA, which levies fines on behalf of workers,” said Tucker. “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.”

At the hearing, Ablett maintained that a processing unit called the Fluid Catalytic Cracker was shut down at the time of the explosion and that the accident was centered in a filtration system called an Electrostatic Precipitator, built to air regulators’ specifications, that extracts particulate matter and other byproducts. “It was particularly strange there was an explosion,” he told regulators.

In fact, refinery workers were repairing a damaged compressor in the Fluid Catalytic Cracker while leaving the cracker partially running, said Bob van der Valk, Senior Editor of the Bakken Oil Business Journal. “They should have shut it down instead. They made an economic decision, and it was the wrong one.” Van der Valk said that hydrocarbon fumes built up in a line leading to the Electrostatic Precipitator, which caused the explosion.

According to van der Valk, a new problem in the crude unit has completely shut down the refinery’s ability to refine gasoline. “They are out of the gasoline refining business for four to six months while they repair the unit,” he said.

“This sort of misrepresentation and omission of information about safety, infrastructure, and the ability to supply gasoline is why refinery managers should be required testify under oath,” said Tucker.

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Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker is a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, following everything from oil and gas to the regulation of toxic substances in the state of California. She comes to us from Marketplace, the largest U.S. broadcast show on business and economics heard by ten million listeners each week on 400 radio stations. Liza worked at this public radio show for a decade, first as Commentary Editor and then as Senior Editor for both Washington and Sustainability News.

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