Immediately after announcing this week the company is selling its Torrance refinery, which has shut down since an explosion in February, ExxonMobile officials came under fire from Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica.
“Is Exxon trying to wash its hands of responsibility for ignoring subpoenas, allegedly hiding witnesses and endangering the public?” the nonprofit group which advocates on behalf of California consumers asked on its website.
Officials announced Wednesday that Exxon had reached a $537.5 million deal with PBF Energy Inc., which plans to produce 900,000 barrels of gasoline a day at the refinery, after the crippled installation is restored “to full working order,” PBF Energy said in a news release.
Company CEO Tom Nimbley said the PBF was “committed to the safe and environmentally responsible operations of the facility.”
Jerry Wascom, president of ExxonMobile Refining and Supply Co., said the sale “results from a strategic assessment of the site and how it fits with our refining portfolio.”
Consumer Watchdog's Lisa Tucker said an “intensifying” state and federal investigation into what caused the February 18 explosion and fire at the Torrance facility may have prompted the sale.
“Sources say it's got under the company's skin,” Tucker said of the investigation by CalOSHA and federal Chemical Safety Board.
The sale, she added, might “loosen the lips” of Exxon workers too intimidated to speak to investigators.
“For the new owner of the refinery, this is an opportunity to force the refinery to change to safer practices,” she said.
In a separate allegation last week, the consumer group charged Exxon officials were keeping witnesses to the accident away from investigators, lagging in their response to subpoenas and generally “subverting” the investigation.
According to the nonprofit, the witnesses could prove Exxon officials “made a decision to keep operating” a piece of equipment under dangerous conditions.
“That decision touched off a build-up of fumes that exploded,” Tucker said Wednesday.
Four workers were injured in the explosion. Tucker said several more employees “barely escaped when sensors on their belts alerted them to the presences of fumes.”
Regardless of the sale, Tucker said, “companies that have been held responsible for negligence and endangerment of workers or the community have had to pay fines in the past, despite the sale of their companies to new owners.”
A television station Wednesday reported that a heavy piece of equipment blasted 100 feet into the air by the explosion nearly landed on a storage tank filled with deadly hydrofluoric acid.
But subsequent reports on Thursday quoted Torrance Mayor Pat Fury saying Exxon officials had assured the city that no hydrofluoric acid was stored at the refinery.
Tucker, however, said Exxon's Torrance facility was one of only two refineries in the state that still used hydrofluoric acid “as a catalyst to boost octane.”
The sale, which is expected to close sometime after June of next year, could be a good thing for consumers, said Tucker, noting that PBF Energy's entry into the state's oil market should boost competition and possibly result in lower prices at the pump.
“New owner or not, Exxon can exit the state, but it cannot avoid the law,” said Tucker.