Environment & Science

Trump budget would dismantle agency investigating Torrance refinery blast

Aerial footage from NBC4 shows firefighters responding to the scene of an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance on February 18, 2015.
Aerial footage from NBC4 shows firefighters responding to the scene of an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance on February 18, 2015.

The Trump administration's budget blueprint calls for eliminating the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a small independent agency that has conducted investigations into California's worst refinery disasters, including the 2015 explosion at the Torrance Refinery.

Environmental activists say the Safety Board plays a critical role in ferreting out the causes of major chemical accidents. A government audit criticized the agency for taking too long to complete its investigations, and for carrying a backlog of incomplete investigations. 

The president's budget outline does not give a specific reason for eliminating the Safety Board, other than the general need to focus funding "to redefine the proper role of the Federal Government."

Safety Board Chair Vanessa Allen Sutherland describes her agency as "a unique truth-teller about what the root causes are for ... catastrophic events."

The Safety Board investigates major accidents involving the release of toxic chemicals and issues recommendations on how the incidents could have been prevented. It doesn't issue fines or citations, and it has no power to enforce its recommendations.

The agency dug into the 2012 fire and explosion at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, which sent some 15,000 residents to hospitals for evaluation. The agency is investigating the Feb. 2015 explosion at the Torrance Refinery, which caused a 40-ton hunk of equipment to land just yards from a tank containing tens of thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical known as modified hydrofluoric acid.

"We were the first to describe" the incident in which the debris nearly hit the tank of modified hydrofluoric acid, Sutherland said. "We are often the first to identify possible risks and root causes of accidents."

She said the Safety Board's investigators were the first to report that a faulty blowout preventer on an underwater drilling rig was the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

The agency's investigation of the Richmond refinery blast led to the formation of a state task force on refinery safety and the passage of new standards taking effect this year.

The Safety Board has six open investigations pending, including the Torrance explosion, said Sutherland, adding that the Torrance inquiry is in its final stages.

A 2016 audit by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general said the Safety Board takes too long to complete its investigations and criticized the agency for carrying a backlog of uncompleted inquiries with no plans for bringing them to a resolution.

A 2014 Congressional hearing blamed the backlog on Rafael Moure-Eraso, an Obama appointee named in 2010 to chair the board. He resigned in early 2015 under pressure from Congress.

Responding to the criticism about the slow pace of investigations, Sutherland pointed out that the agency's annual budget is just $11 million, and it only has 41 staff. 

The Safety Board also came under fire in 2015 for abruptly dropping, without adequate public notice, an investigation into the  release of toxic hydrofluoric acid in a fire at a refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas in 2009. The agency claimed it didn't have the resources to finish the investigation.

Environmental activists in Torrance don't want to see the Safety Board eliminated.

"We absolutely need to fight to save this agency," said Sally Hayati, president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, which is lobbying state and regional authorities to ban the use of modified hydrofluoric acid at the Torrance Refinery and at one in Wilmington.

She values  the board's independence, saying it was "the only agency that spoke out and indicated that there were problems [at the Torrance Refinery] and that an honest engineering straightforward investigation needed to be made to assess what the risk was."