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The Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit seeking answers to many of the same questions residents have long asked about serious safety issues at the Torrance refinery in the wake of a February 2015 explosion.
The 34-page legal brief, filed in U.S. District Court last week against former refinery owner ExxonMobil, provides new details on a March 2015 fire and September 2015 hydrofluoric acid leak that occurred in the wake of the blast.
Moreover, the petition suggests the investigative direction authorities are taking in their probe to uncover possible safety, operational, maintenance and financial issues that may have contributed to the near catastrophic disaster.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which issued its final report on the blast last week despite the many unanswered questions, has said the 1.7-magnitude explosion almost caused a catastrophic release of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid that could have killed or injured thousands in the nearby densely populated residential neighborhoods.
The force of the explosion catapulted a 40-ton piece of a pollution-control device called an electrostatic precipitator, where the blast occurred, 100 feet into the adjacent alkylation unit, according to the Department of Justice lawsuit. It landed within 5 feet of a tank containing thousands of gallons of the dangerous acid that can form a toxic, ground-hugging cloud when exposed to air.
Workers cause fire
Several weeks later, as crews worked to remove debris caused when the electrostatic precipitator was literally blown apart, sparks from the work ignited a flammable fluid, leading to a fire that burned for several hours.
The fire’s cause had not previously been disclosed to the public.
The DOJ is seeking answers about the fire on behalf of the CSB as part of seven administrative subpoenas issued to ExxonMobil from June 2015 to October 2015.
“Exxon has not fully complied with six of the seven subpoenas,” the lawsuit said. “Exxon’s failure to provide the requested information has impeded and delayed the board’s investigation.”
The Justice Department has requested all reports and other documents related to the fire because officials suspect it may have a “relationship” to the explosion.
Hydrofluoric acid leak
The leak occurred from a pipe clamp.
“Exxon had installed the clamp to patch an aging pipe instead of replacing it,” the lawsuit reads. “Over five pounds of modified hydrofluoric acid was released as a white vapor cloud over two hours.”
It’s the first time the amount of hydrofluoric acid accidentally released during the incident has been disclosed. Even small amounts can be deadly in low concentrations.
Modified hydrofluoric acid supposedly is safer than the pure version because it contains an additive designed to inhibit the formation of the dangerous vapor cloud, but “few scientific studies show whether modified hydrofluoric acid is actually safer,” according to the lawsuit.
The federal government is seeking photos and videos of the leak because it shows the “risks posed by a release” of modified hydrofluoric acid and how it behaves when released.
ExxonMobil and current refinery owner PBF Energy have repeatedly insisted publicly that modified hydrofluoric acid is safe, but industry experts, local activists and government agencies are seeking more evidence of that.
“I would like to see that damn data that says modified hydrofluoric acid is safer,” said Neal Langerway, an oil industry expert, who called the patch on the pipe a “Band-Aid.”
“The Band-Aid will usually work, but like any Band-Aid it needs attention,” he added. “If they hadn’t repaired it during a (refinery) shutdown, that would not meet best-management practices.”
It’s unknown how long the clamp was on the pipe.
The remainder of the DOJ legal brief is a long laundry list of document requests, including the reason for the request.
• Studies to maintain, repair and replace parts that failed in the explosion that will show the “potential role of equipment failure and inadequate maintenance” in the blast.
• Studies showing the potential health effects of the industrial dust that showered neighborhoods after the blast and contained metals, fiberglass and glass wool.
• Analysis and reports received from a contractor that could show “the potential role of cost-cutting measures” in causing the blast.
• All reports from the Torrance Fire Department about refinery incidents over the last five years that show the “integrity, security and risks” of the modified hydrofluoric acid.
• All records related to the consent decree between ExxonMobil and the city that allowed the use of modified hydrofluoric acid — documents municipal officials have so far refused to release — that could show the effectiveness of modified hydrofluoric acid.
• All studies showing ExxonMobil’s “assessment of risks from the physical layout of the refinery” that could show the “potential role of design failure” in the blast.
• A risk management plan analysis showing ExxonMobil’s safeguards in the case of a major accident, such as a release of hydrofluoric acid. The Environmental Protection Agency is looking into whether the company understated the risks of such a release.
CSB officials said last week they didn’t know basic safety information, such as the percentage of additive in hydrofluoric acid, that could allow them to understand the risks the refinery poses to the community.
Class-action suit pending
A class-action lawsuit filed this year by a Manhattan Beach law firm seeks answers to many of the same questions, such as whether there are any potential health effects from the blast’s fallout, said attorney Joshua D. Boxer, a senior associate with Matern Law Group.
He’s hopeful the government probe will help his court case.
“There’s certainly a great deal of deference (by courts) to federal administrative agencies in many respects,” he said. “The fact that these investigators who are independent and specially charged with overseeing safety procedures at the refinery like the one in Torrance found such significant safety hazards, we think, will be extremely persuasive to the judge and jury.”
The DOJ petition was the second involving ExxonMobil last week.
The company reportedly received a notification involving $100,000 in penalties and corrective actions involving violations of the Clean Water Act stemming from a 2013 flash fire at a Texas refinery.
*Original article online at http://www.dailybreeze.com/2017/05/06/department-of-justice-sues-exxonmobil-for-2015-refinery-explosion-records/