Politics

Pollution fines could be spent on Torrance refinery air monitors

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

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More than two years after a refinery explosion sent fumes wafting over a Torrance neighborhood, air quality regulators are deciding how millions of dollars in penalties might be spent in support of the community that bore the brunt of the pollution.

The money is likely to be spent over three years monitoring air quality around the refinery formerly owned by Exxon-Mobil and to improve a system to alert residents when the refinery emits high levels of pollutants.

Exxon-Mobil paid $2.77 million in fines after an explosion in February 2015 and excessive flaring a year later as the company tried to restart the plant. The explosion was strong enough to register as an earthquake, and giant flares lit up the sky and poured particulate matter over thousands of homes located near the refinery.

Some fines the air district collects are awarded on a competitive basis to projects that benefit the communities that suffered the pollution. The AQMD received requests for $15 million worth of projects, most for air quality monitoring, but also some for community education.

Torrance city government asked for $2.3 million, nearly the full amount. It offered to monitor air quality around the refinery and improve the city’s emergency alert system.

But an administrative committee of  AQMD board members voted unanimously last week to give Torrance only enough to upgrade its notification and alert system, about $600,000.

An outside company, Sonoma Technology, Inc., was recommended to receive $2.2 million to do the air monitoring. The company has extensive experience with air monitoring, an AQMD report said.  The full AQMD board is set to finalize the awards at a meeting in July.

Torrance resident Seth Kaufman said he is glad to see a third party get the monitoring because Exxon-Mobil had a reputation for keeping information about refinery operations confidential, and Torrance officials have also held some data about the refinery private at the company’s request.

“It’s been very hard for anybody to criticize or even get proper readings because the refinery basically has kept all this information,” Kaufman said.

A key example is the recipe for  modified hydrofluoric acid, a dangerous chemical used at the refinery that some in the community are trying to ban. The U.S. Department of Justice is pursuing Exxon-Mobil to obtain documents about the chemical and how it was in use at the time of the Feb. 2015 explosion.