“The most important thing is to shelter in place, stay indoors, no outdoor activity, turn the air conditioners off, keep the windows closed.” This was the instruction Torrance Mayor Patrick Furey gave to neighbors of the Exxon Mobil refinery, including the children at 14 schools, for three hours following a massive explosion at the facility Feb. 18.
Four workers were injured. The force of the explosion, in a pollution control unit, was so great it registered as a magnitude 1.4 earthquake. Photographs showed a scene straight out of “Mad Max,” with heavy white ash coating twisted debris, and a blown-apart multi-story structure. For 28 hours, twin stacks shot flames into the air, burning off volatile gases.
Only a limited area of the 750-acre facility was affected, but Torrance residents from at least 3.5 miles away felt the rumble and cleaned up after the “white snow” that fell on streets, cars, playgrounds, homes, pets and people. Composed of “catalyst dust” — usually made up of aluminum oxide and smaller amounts of nickel and vanadium — the ash is considered nontoxic in the amounts released but it can irritate skin, eyes and throats, and those handling it are cautioned to wear protective gloves and face gear.
It was the third U.S. refinery explosion this year, and just the latest reminder of the very real dangers petroleum refineries and terminals pose for their workers, their neighbors, the air we breathe and the climate we share. For nearly a decade, the industry’s leading watchdogs have warned that American refineries are operating with shocking disregard for known risks and are failing to adhere to existing regulations, which are also dangerously insufficient.
That reality has also put nearly 7,000 refinery workers on picket lines at 15 refineries nationwide. Torrance isn’t among them, but the Tesoro refinery in nearby Carson is. The strike is not about wages or benefits. It’s about 12-hour shifts for 30 straight days, worker fatigue and accidents, and too many ill-trained, ill-paid contract workers (the injured workers at Torrance were contractors).
And it’s about companies that aren’t using the safest available technology; for example, they use unnecessarily dangerous materials, such as modified hydrofluoric acid, which was present in vessels and piping close to the unit that exploded in Torrance. Fortunately, the vessels and piping weren’t breached.
In fact, at least 50 workers have died in U.S. refinery incidents since 2007, according to my research. During the same period, according to the United Steelworkers, a fire or explosion has put refinery workers and communities at risk twice a month, on average, at facilities across the nation.
One of those accidents stands out in California’s memory. In 2012 a corroded pipe ruptured, causing an explosion and fire at Chevron’s Richmond, Calif., refinery. Six workers were injured, a black cloud of toxic chemicals spread thousands of feet into the air and across San Francisco Bay, and about 15,000 nearby residents sought medical assistance, all because, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the company didn’t do proper maintenance.
Five years earlier, after a BP Texas refinery blast killed 15 and injured 180, the Chemical Safety Board warned of pervasive “complacency toward serious safety risks” at all American refineries. After Richmond, it concluded the situation had not improved. The board specifically cited the need for California to “enhance and restructure” its deficient safety management regulations.
In response, Gov. Jerry Brown established an interagency working group on refinery safety. Its February 2014 report includes workers testifying about old, outdated and corroded structures, inadequate maintenance and retaliation against those who try to shut down unsafe operations. The report also reveals severe gaps in regulations, limitations on state regulators’ abilities to “cover all aspects of process safety,” and penalties that are “insufficient … to create meaningful deterrence.”
One of the things those penalties fail to deter is air pollution. Since 2005, Exxon Mobil has paid more than $15 million in fines (including fines for failing to address violations that led to previous fines) related to state and federal air standards at the Torrance refinery and terminals. Nonetheless, the Torrance refinery has been in “high priority violation” of the federal Clean Air Act in every quarter since at least 2011 and faces 12 Clean Air Act “significant violations,” which carry fines of nearly $100,000. These pollutants pose serious health risks to neighbors and the climate: California’s refineries are the single largest stationary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.
The governor’s report listed more than two-dozen necessary safety improvements, starting with new rules to force refineries to adopt “inherently safer systems.” Since then, just two new regulations have made it as far as the rule-making phase.
Clearly, much is left to be done. Oil refineries will always be hazardous, but they can be made much safer. Before there’s another Torrance, or Richmond, or another clean-air violation or refinery death, the demands of the striking workers should be met, the concerns of communities heard and the governor’s and Chemical Safety Board’s recommendations fully implemented.
Antonia Juhasz is the author of “The Tyranny of Oil.”