A federal investigation into the explosion at Exxon Mobil’s Torrance refinery last year found multiple safety-management problems that led to the incident and endangered the lives of “many community members.”
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board released part of its findings Wednesday from the investigation into last February’s Torrance refinery explosion, which has been a major contributor to high gasoline prices in the Los Angeles area.
The Chemical Safety Board said Exxon Mobil hasn’t complied with requests for information about a near-miss incident during the Feb. 18 explosion. To date, the oversight agency said it has “no or incomplete responses to 49% of its subpoena requests.”
The explosion injured workers and dispersed large quantities of dust up to a mile away from the plant. In addition, investigators said large pieces of debris from the explosion hit other equipment at the facility while narrowly missing a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of hydrofluoric acid. Had the debris struck the tank and ruptured it, investigators said, the incident could have had “a potentially catastrophic release of extremely toxic [hydrofluoric acid] into the neighboring community.”
“Hydrofluoric acid can pose a severe hazard to the population and environment if a release occurs,” said Vanessa Allen Sutherland, chairwoman of the Chemical Safety Board. After the acid is released, it “can cause severe damage to the respiratory system, skin and bones of those who are exposed, potentially resulting in death.”
Todd Spitler, an Exxon Mobil spokesman, said the company’s own investigation found no evidence that the explosion posed any risk to the tank containing the hydrofluoric acid. He added that Exxon Mobil has been working to deliver the requested information to the Chemical Safety Board.
“We have taken corrective actions to prevent this incident from happening again,” Spitler said. “Exxon Mobil stands on its record of good faith compliance with all agencies, including the Chemical Safety Board, and we look forward to hearing their perspectives on the incident and reviewing the preliminary report.”
Spitler said that since February, Exxon Mobil has provided more than 340,000 pages of documents or images, “and our workers participated in nearly 156 witness interviews with various agencies. That includes 136,000 pages and 67 interviews for the Chemical Safety Board.”
Exxon Mobil, Spitler said, also has helped with numerous Chemical Safety Board visits and site tours since last year’s incident, continuing through this week.
During a news conference Wednesday, Sutherland said the “safety management deficiencies” at the Torrance plant are similar to other Chemical Safety Board investigations, including the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif. A fire there endangered 19 workers and sent more than 15,000 residents to the hospital for medical treatment.
Mark Wingard, investigator in charge of the Torrance review, said some of the contributors to the explosion include an inadequate analysis, issues with mechanical integrity and lack of planned outages to perform maintenance since 2010. Wingard also said investigators found a fire hazard in the pollution-control system that was destroyed in the explosion.
“No effective safeguards were implemented at the refinery to mitigate this threat,” Wingard said.
The Chemical Safety Board is scheduled to release its full report at 5 p.m. Wednesday at a hearing in Torrance City Hall chambers.
Torrance is a mixed-use city with 333,000 residents, 71 schools and eight hospitals within a three-mile radius of the Exxon Mobil refinery.
The Torrance plant accounts for 10% of the state’s refined gasoline capacity and 20% of the refined capacity in Southern California. Since the explosion, however, Exxon Mobil has operated the plant at less than 20% normal capacity. That has contributed to high gasoline prices in the L.A. region that have reached as high as $1.50 above the national average.
Other refinery outages, both planned and unplanned, have pushed California gasoline prices substantially higher than the national average.
On Wednesday, the national average reached $1.95 a gallon for regular compared with $3.01 in the L.A. area, according to AAA.
The high prices, strongly criticized by advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog, have helped other oil refiners’ profits because of inventory shortages of the special blend of environmentally friendly gasoline that California requires.
California gas prices typically run higher than the rest of the nation because of the blend and higher taxes and fees. But the refinery outages have caused an even wider gap.