South Bay Reps. Ted Lieu and Maxine Waters have slammed ExxonMobil a second time for failing to comply with a federal investigation into a February explosion and September leak of modified hydrofluoric acid at its Torrance refinery.
A strongly worded letter obtained by the Los Angeles News Group accuses ExxonMobil of hampering the federal investigation by blocking access to witnesses and various refinery units.
The letter, dated Oct. 9, noted that the company “submitted only five out of 90 subpoenas” requested by the U.S. Chemical Board.
“We will be incredibly disappointed if ExxonMobil’s failure to respond to these subpoenas forces the CSB to have the Department of Justice intervene,” Lieu and Waters wrote. “ExxonMobil’s failure to cooperate with federal investigators is not only troubling, it is inconsistent with federal law.”
In a full-page ad published in the Daily Breeze on Sunday, ExxonMobil again asserted that it is “cooperating with the agencies investigating the accident,” despite the lawmakers’ contentions. It had no additional comment on the letter.
The letter was written just before an unusual 5:30 p.m. Tuesday City Council workshop on safety issues at the refinery, which is in the process of being sold by ExxonMobil to one of the nation’s largest independent refiners.
Even though the meeting has been in the planning stages for two weeks, critics noted that it wasn’t until Friday night before what is a holiday weekend for some that the city of Torrance belatedly released a 172-page staff report related to the workshop that included an incorrect start time to the Tuesday meeting.
City officials were forced to release corrected information over the weekend.
The meeting includes two presentations by refinery manager Brian Ablett on the status of the repairs to the refinery. Another is scheduled by a supposedly independent court-appointed safety adviser that some refinery opponents regard as an industry advocate.
“This resembles more an ExxonMobil panel that the city has set up, a forum for ExxonMobil to explain to the public how safe they are,” said Sally Hayati, who is a member of the recently formed Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. “We were given 10 minutes.”
The city’s voluminous packet of information includes a copy of the 1990 court-issued consent decree that led to the use of a modified type of HF at the refinery that ExxonMobil insists is a safer alternative.
While experts believe that is true in some circumstances, it is still considered a hazardous chemical that could be replaced by less risky alternatives., as outlined by a 2013 United Steelworkers study called “A Risk Too Great.”
The report concluded refineries do not have adequate safety systems in place and are not prepared to handle a catastrophic release.
One of the contributors to that study, Rick Hines, legislative director of Greenpeace’s toxics campaign, said Monday that a “worst-case scenario” outlined in the study actually understates the risk.
It said a 5,200-pound release of HF in Torrance could expose 256,000 South Bay residents in seven cities to the potentially fatal chemical. But that scenario is based on a lone rupture of a vessel containing HF; what if, for instance, rail cars or trucks transporting the chemical to the refinery rupture?
“Homeland Security Dept. believes a terrorist would hit all vessels … resulting in an even worse worst-case scenario and one that would result in a massive release of HF that even the most diligent operator would not be able to prevent,” he wrote via email
It’s unknown how many thousands of pounds of the chemical are transported on city streets or rail lines that snake through Torrance. City officials don’t address the issue in the report.
Indeed, the report appears as significant for what information is omitted as much as what’s included.
For instance, it does not address a CBS News report that the force of the Feb. 18 explosion sent an 80,000-pound piece of equipment hurtling through the air and landing just a few feet from an HF vessel.
CSB Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland said the “near miss … could have been much more catastrophic” and it was just luck the accident wasn’t far worse.
Torrance Fire Department officials also have yet to release a cause of the Sept. 6 HF leak, saying a “more detailed examination” was required. City officials have conceded, however, that ExxonMobil failed to follow emergency notification procedures in the wake of the leak, including calling for a hazardous materials team response as required.
Despite supposedly elaborate monitoring and safety systems in place, Fire Department officials say they have no idea just how much of the highly toxic substance was released.
But Lieu and Waters offered a different reason, saying in their latest letter that federal investigators have said “they were denied access to look at what caused the September 6 leak and the location of the leak.”
Reporter covering Torrance, Lomita, Rolling Hills Estates, Palos Verdes Estates. Nick also covers soccer as a sports columnist. Reach the author at [email protected]