A divided South Coast Air Quality Management District hearing board on Saturday approved an agreement allowing ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery to restart operations after a February 2015 explosion destroyed a major pollution control device on a large processing unit at the facility.
Members of the hearing board voted 3-2 for the restart at a rare weekend session that included several hours of public testimony. The vote at the meeting, which was held in the Torrance City Council chambers and had a scheduled 9 a.m. start, was taken at 8:15 p.m.
The explosion at the refinery hampered Southland fuel production and contributed to higher gas prices.
The agreement requires ExxonMobil to pay about $5 million in penalties for air pollution violations that resulted from the blast. The oil company must also follow a multistep procedure aimed at minimizing emissions during the restart procedure. A company spokeswoman said the process is likely to take at least a week to complete.
“This approved order adopted by SCAQMD’s hearing board puts in place stringent measures designed to protect the health and safety of nearby residents while the refinery resumes normal operations,” Kurt Wiese, the district's general counsel stated in a press release. “It is also imperative that a substantial portion of penalty fines be directed to benefit the nearby communities.”
Half of the monies will be earmarked for projects to benefit the communities surrounding the Torrance facility. The air quality district said in the press release that its governing board will consider projects to be funded, with an opportunity for public input on proposed projects.
SCAQMD officials have said restarting the damaged facility will result in the release of excessive carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants, as a result of an altered start-up procedure "necessary to improve the safety of their operations.''
ExxonMobil officials said the company "has been working cooperatively with South Coast Air Quality Management District staff on a restart plan that enhances community safety, protects the environment and supports the economy.''
"We have installed new safety equipment and updated our process safety management procedures for restarting and resuming full operations,'' the company said. "The stringent conditions associated with startup are designed to minimize the impact to the community and the environment. Our restart procedures have been thoroughly evaluated by the AQMD and are consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Refinery Sector Rule and other relevant regulations.''
The refinery, which has been out of operation since the blast, was sold to New Jersey-based oil refining company PBF Energy in September. The $527.5 million deal is expected to close in the second quarter of 2016. The 750-acre refinery has a capacity of 155,000 barrels per day.
Among the citizens speaking in opposition to the agreement at Saturday's meeting was Joe Galliani, founding organizer of the South Bay Los Angeles 350 Climate Action Group. Galliani said that, despite reassurances from ExxonMobil that the refinery is safe, the facility has yet to prove a record of safe and clean operation.
"At what point do you say, 'No, we're not going to give you an excuse to increase emissions when we're already over the safety line,' Galliano told the hearing board. "I ask you not to give this abatement, and I ask you not to reopen this plant until it's actually safe for us to breathe the air that they pump out of that production."
Federal authorities blamed a breakdown in safety procedures for causing the Feb. 18, 2015, explosion. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the trouble began six days before the blast when a problem developed with a piece of equipment known as an expander, forcing the plant's "fluid catalytic cracking'' unit to be shut down.
That shutdown led to steam being forced into a reactor, and some was leaking from an open flange that was preventing plant employees from carrying out repair work, the safety board found. When a supervisor reduced the flow of steam, it caused hydrocarbons to flow into the plant's electrostatic precipitator, where the hydrocarbons were ignited, causing the explosion.
According to the safety board, plant employees deviated from standard procedures while trying to repair the catalytic cracking unit, but they used an outdated "variance'' that is required prior to move ahead with the work.
State regulators issued 19 citations against ExxonMobil and proposed penalties totaling $566,600 in response to the explosion. Cal/OSHA officials said a 2007 safety review found problems with flammable vapor in the plant's electrostatic precipitator, but no corrective actions were taken. Regulators noted that the plant's fluid catalytic cracker had not been working properly
for as long as nine years prior to the blast.