ExxonMobil Dumps Plan for Quick, Dirty Fix at Torrance Refinery

Friday, September 25, 2015

The mostly-immobilized ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, which may have cost California motorists around 75 cents a gallon for gasoline since an explosion in February, says its hoped-for September re-start will apparently be delayed until at least February.

ExxonMobil met resistance from regulators to its plan to replace the 12-story, state-of-the-art air pollution equipment it blew up while working on other equipment with a piece it had retired in 2009. That would produce “anywhere from two to six times the emissions of the newer unit that was destroyed in the explosion,” Southern California Air Quality Management District (AQMD) spokesman Sam Atwood said.

There was no indication from regulators or ExxonMobil that the delay is related to a small leak of highly-toxic modified hydrofluoric acid on September 6. Two members of California’s congressional delegation asked the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to broaden its ongoing investigation of the refinery blast to include the acid incident.

They want to know why, among other things,  the company waited a “significant amount of time” before contacting the Torrance Fire Department, which later labeled the spill a “significant incident.” The letter to the board also asked for an investigation of how ExxonMobil stores and processes modified hydrofluoric acid.

Consumer Watchdog, in a letter (pdf) to Governor Jerry Brown, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch offering “confidential information” on the blast, wrote:

“It was sheer luck that the explosion did not ignite hundreds of thousands of pounds of modified hydrofluoric acid stored nearby. Such a poisonous release of dense vapor clouds traveling low to the ground and up to 25 miles from the plant in a densely-populated area could have led to poison entering people’s bodies, causing extensive burns and damage to internal organs.”  

The letter also accused ExxonMobil of stashing away in an admistrative job the guy who was in charge of the Fluid Catalytic Cracker on the day it exploded. He’s not talking to anyone, the group said, and ExxonMobil is refusing to release risk assessments of the equipment involved. But their sources say this is how it went down:

“The Torrance explosion was caused when personnel chose to override safety concerns and keep the Fluid Catalytic Cracker operating while simultaneously trying to fix a broken compressor. That allowed hydrocarbons to leak out and ignite.”

ExxonMobil, in an e-mail to the Daily Breeze in Torrance, denied “any deliberate wrongdoing” and said the employee was not hidden. The company said the transfer was routine and pre-arranged, and that he had testified before three separate agencies. 

The Torrance refinery has a disproportionate effect on gasoline prices because of the state’s peculiar circumstances. The state uses an eco-friendly gas mixture that requires seasonal refinery switchovers, isolating the market from the rest of the nation. When functioning properly, the refinery produces 20% of Southern California’s gasoline.

The events at the refinery prompted USC Professor Stephen Byars, a business ethics expert, to call ExxonMobil worse than Volkswagen. It takes something special to be thought more unethical than a company that admits to fooling 11 million people into driving monstrously polluting cars powered by what it calls “clean diesel.”

Byars cited, for the Daily Breeze, the litany of complaints against ExxonMobil but said the big difference was the automaker fessed up and the oil company won’t. The professor didn’t mention that Volkswagen was essentially caught by researchers and investigators more than a year ago and pretended to “fix” the problem while stonewalling until the obvious was impossible to deny.

ExxonMobil’s reported new February start-up goal will be close to the anniversary of the blast that crippled the facility. Perhaps it will be time then for the company to don the ethical mantle, fess up and join Volkswagen among the repentant.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Exxon Mobil Scraps Plans for Temporary Fix to Damaged Torrance Refinery (by Ivan Penn, Los Angeles Times)

Restart of Exxon's California Refinery Pushed to February (by Kristen Hays, Reuters)

Ethics Expert: Exxonmobil’s Behavior Since Torrance Refinery Blast Is Worse than Volkswagen’s (by Nick Green, Torrance Daily Breeze)

Letter to State and Federal Officials (Consumer Watchdog) (pdf)

What Happened to the Refinery Re-Start that Would Slash California Fuel Prices? (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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