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Torrance Exxon Mobil Refinery explosion final report released

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.

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It's been a little more than two years since a massive explosion crippled the Exxon Mobil Refinery in Torrance. 

The most frightening element of the explosion – to those living near the refinery - was learning that a giant hunk of metal landed dangerously close to a tank of deadly chemicals. If they had spilled, that could have sent a toxic cloud into nearby homes.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board just released its final report on the Torrance Refinery explosion. KPCC’s infrastructure reporter Sharon McNary got an early look at the report and told Take Two's A Martinez what it said.

On what happened on the day of the explosion

Before nine in the morning, February 18, 2015, workers at the Torrance refinery were making a repair to a part of the refinery. So due to faulty and lacking safety procedures, according to this report, they didn't shut down the unit known as a fluid catalytic cracker. They worked on it while it was in a standby mode. It was turned on, but not processing anything. That's when some flammable hydrocarbons, which are gas and gas vapors, back flowed into a unit called an electrostatic precipitator.

It's a chamber with charge plates that produces sparks and, kablooey, it all blew up. That explosion blew a massive piece of metal, 41 tons, just feet from a tank of hydrochloric acid. That's a chemical that can vaporize and form a fast moving toxic cloud that hugs the ground and injures those in its path, possibly for miles around.  The refinery says the hydrochloric acid has an additive to make it safer. Community activists, including local scientists, say that additive doesn't reduce the hazard and they're now trying to get the refinery to stop using the chemical.

On what caused the explosion

They say that it could have been prevented through better safety procedures, newer equipment and the right kind of instruments to detect the presence of gas vapors in that part of the refinery. To be specific, Exxon Mobil didn't have rules about how to safely do the repair on the catalytic cracker unit.

The refinery unit itself was out-dated by Exxon Mobil's own standards and that obsolescent equipment is what allowed the back wash of hydrocarbons and the gas vapors to get into the unit and explode. Also, the refinery didn't have the right kind of safety instruments to tell when those explosive gasses were flowing into the cat. cracker unit. 

On how the U.S. Chemical Safety Board might be able to manage the problem for the future

The US Chemical Safety Board is kind of like my mean third-grade teacher. She doesn't punish all the bad kids, she'll pick out one misbehaving kid and it was usually me to be the public example for the rest to learn on. The safety board looks at industrial chemical accidents like this and it digs into the ones that have teachable lessons on things like how not to blow up a whole community.

To hear the full conversation, click the blue player above.