Exxon Refinery Explosion Has Lasting Effect on Gas Prices: Consumer Group

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Members of a consumer-advocacy group accused ExxonMobil today of trying to subvert an investigation into a February explosion at the company's Torrance refinery, saying the firm is refusing to turn over requested documents and hiding an employee key to the probe from investigators.

"Exxon is denying documents requested under subpoena by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, information substantiated in a letter from Reps. Maxine Waters and Ted Lieu on Sept. 11, 2015," according to a Consumer Watchdog letter sent to Gov. Jerry Brown, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

"Now Consumer Watchdog has received confidential information that the key Exxon employee who reportedly made decisions leading to the explosion is being hidden from investigators," the group wrote.

Gesuina Paras, public and government affairs director for ExxonMobil in Torrance, said, "As a matter of practice, we do not comment on third-party comment or speculation."

"The Torrance refinery remains focused on assisting all investigating agencies in our shared task of understanding the root cause of the Feb. 18 incident," Paras said. Four workers were injured in the Feb. 18 blast, which led state regulators to issue 19 citations against the company and propose penalties totaling $566,600.

Cal/OSHA officials said a 2007 safety review found problems with flammable vapor in the plant's electrostatic precipitator, but no corrective actions were taken. Regulators noted that the plant's fluid catalytic cracker had not been working properly for as long as nine years prior to the blast. A preliminary report by the South Coast Air Quality Management District determined the blast was caused by over-pressurization in the electrostatic precipitator — an air-pollution-control system

Consumer Watchdog officials allege that a plant employee who was in charge of the fluid catalytic cracker that should have been turned off, but wasn't, has been “reassigned to an administrative position'' at the plant, and has been told to “stay away from the investigation and keep quiet.'' “We have learned from confidential sources that the February explosion that roiled California gasoline markets and a recent leak of modified hydroflouric acid seem to stem from a single source — reckless disregard for safety by the company,'' according to the group.

ExxonMobil officials announced recently they were hoping to implement a short-term fix at the plant by activating an older pollution-control system — a move that experts said could drive down gasoline prices by boosting local supplies.

The Los Angeles Times reported, however, that the company has abandoned that effort and plans to move forward with a long-term solution that won't bring the damaged portion of the refinery back on line until early next year.

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