Santa Monica Group Charges Exxon Thwarting Probe

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September 25, 2015 — ExxonMobile is muzzling a key witness to last February's explosion at its Torrance refinery, effectively “subverting” a state and federal investigation of the disaster that injured four workers, Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog charged this week.

The nonprofit advocacy group, which has fought the oil industry over alleged price gouging, made the latest accusation in a letter sent Wednesday to Gov. Jerry Brown, State Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

ExxonMobile officials could not be reached for comment.

Consumer Watchdog cited a separate letter sent September 11 to Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson by Santa Monica-area U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu and Rep. Maxine Waters in which the two lawmakers said they were “deeply concerned by recent efforts by ExxonMobile to push back against the investigation.”

Along with trying to dodge fines, ExxonMobile is withholding documents from Cal OSHA and U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators, Lieu and Waters alleged.

Now, Consumer Watchdog said Wednesday, it has “confidential information” to substantiate the claims. The group said it has proof that an ExxonMobile employee “who reportedly made decisions leading to the explosion is being hidden from investigators.”

The manager, whose name was redacted from copies of the letter released publicly, “has extensive information about negligence that led to the massive blast” and should be required to “come forth and answer key questions,” Consumer Watchdog wrote to Brown and the prosecutors.

The letter notes that California law holds managers criminally responsible for failing to report workplace hazards they know about. It said the law applies to “Exxon's CEO Rex Tillerson as much as it does” to the unnamed manager, “who should be granted whatever protections may be necessary to get to the truth.”

According to Consumer Watchdog, ExxonMobile ignored a malfunctioning pressure gauge that posed the danger of an explosion. The company allegedly knew about the broken gauge for nine years but did nothing to fix it, according to the advocacy group.

“Exxon also ignored the results of a safety review in 2007 that indicated concerns about leakage of flammable vapors” in some key air pollution equipment, according to Consumer Watchdog.

“According to Cal OSHA, management knew of potential fire and explosion hazards as a result of the leakage and failed to correct the dangers.”

The letter cites Cal OSHA investigations pointing to the failed air pollution equipment as the cause of the February 18 explosion, which was felt for miles and reportedly registered 1.7 on earthquake scales.

After the blast, a tower of fire burned at the refinery for more than 24 hours. Surrounding neighborhoods were sprinkled with toxic metal particles, according to Lieu and Waters.

According to Consumer Watchdog, the explosion occurred when refinery employees decided to “override safety concerns” and keep the pollution-controlling device operating “while simultaneously trying to fix a broken compressor.”

“That allowed hydrocarbons to leak out and ignite, blowing up a 12-story high, state-of-the-art piece of air pollution equipment,” said Consumer Watchdog's letter.

The company's repeated failures to correct hazardous equipment led to the explosion, Consumer Watchdog said.

Until ExxonMobile comes clean and begins cooperating fully with investigators, the company should not be allowed to do business as usual, said the group's letter.

“As long as ExxonMobile remains a black box, concealing evidence and the truth from the public, it cannot be trusted to reopen safely,” the group wrote.

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