A huge explosion at the Torrance Refinery two years ago could have been prevented if then-owner Exxon Mobil had paid more attention to safety, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
Obsolete equipment, improvised repair procedures, and an overall lack of safety standards contributed to a massive explosion at the Exxon Mobil Refinery Feb. 18, 2015.
"The proper tools to manage risk were not operating effectively that day," said Vanessa Allen Sutherland, chair of the U-S Chemical Safety Board at a news conference in Torrance.
A gate valve that was supposed to keep flammable hydrocarbons out of a unit that produced sparks didn't work properly. Exxon-Mobil's own manuals said it should have been taken out of operation years earlier.
"Workers were running the unit blind," Sutherland said. She described the explosion as having the potential to be catastrophic to the residential community surrounding the refinery.
"Such incidents are preventable with the implementation of a robust safety management program," Sutherland said.
"Our recommendations, if adopted, will ensure that proper written procedures are adopted, that workers are trained adequately on those, and that equipment is not run past its normal operating window," Sutherland said.
Exxon-Mobil in mid 2016 sold the refinery to PBF Energy. PBF issued a statement Wednesday saying the plant had been upgraded to meet some of the safety board's recommendations, with other potential improvements under study.
Despite the harsh verdict, the Chemical Safety Board only has the power to make recommendations to the current and former owners of the refinery and the industry as a whole. But it cannot force their adoption. Other regulatory agencies, including Cal OSHA, the state EPA and the South Coast Air Quality Management District have oversight of worker safety, environmental and air pollution issues.
Sutherland played a video animation showing the mechanical problems and operating mistakes that occurred in the run-up to the explosion.
The video does not describe the near-miss disaster at the refinery's alkylation unit, where toxic hydrofluoric acid is used in a process to increase the octane of gasoline, jet fuel and other products.
In the explosion, a multi-ton chunk of refinery equipment landed dangerously close to a tank containing thousands of gallons of hydrofluoric acid. If it had been released, it could have formed a toxic cloud that could have harmed people outside the refinery boundaries. The Chemical Safety Board lacked enough information to include the near-miss disaster in its video because the company refused to supply information that investigators requested in subpoenas, Sutherland said.
The Chemical Safety Board says Exxon Mobil has balked at complying with subpoenas for information and company documents since the 2015 blast.
In an emailed statement, Exxon Mobil spokesman Todd Spitler said the company cooperated in good faith with the safety board's investigation, handing over some 350,000 pages of documents and images and permitted investigators and safety board members to tour the refinery.
The list of documents the government requested that the company refuses to provide is extensive, and it appears to concentrate heavily on the use and safety of aging equipment and the toxic chemical hydrofluoric acid.
On Tuesday, the Chemical Safety Board made its list public when it petitioned a judge in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to order Exxon Mobil to comply with subpoenas.
In part, the petition asks Exxon Mobil to hand over a wide range of documents concerning the chemical hydrofluoric acid, the alkylation unit of the refinery where the acid is used, documents related to earlier incidents including a March 2015 fire and a 1994 release of Hydrofluoric Acid.
Among the documents sought is the Torrance Refinery's Risk Management Plan Worst Case Scenarios, which would describe the impact a large-scale release of hydrofluoric acid might have on some 150,000 people who live nearby.