Fire erupts at Torrance refinery just hours before protest rally

February 18, 2017
In The News

On a day when activists marked the two-year anniversary of an explosion that rocked the then-ExxonMobil refinery and showered neighborhoods with industrial debris, another fire erupted at the troubled Torrance plant early Saturday.

“Another fire? Really?” read one of the signs carried by chanting marchers who endured a steady downpour to protest the use of toxic hydrofluoric acid at the refinery. Organizers estimated the crowd size at more than 400.

The fire, possibly triggered by an explosion that has not yet been confirmed, was reported at 6 a.m. Saturday in the plant’s crude oil unit, said Torrance Assistant Fire Chief Steve Treskes. Three dozen firefighters knocked down the blaze within a half-hour. For a while, though, flames shot 40 feet into the air.

No injuries were reported and there were no evacuations.

Refinery spokeswoman Betsy Brien said the fire was “quickly extinguished” and the Del Amo Boulevard barriers were activated to close the road “under an abundance of caution.”

Other than the affected crude unit, the refinery continues to operate, Brien said.

Torrance fire Capt. Robert Millea said he couldn’t immediately confirm whether an explosion actually occurred, only that one was reported. PBF Energy, which now owns the Torrance Refining Co. refinery, denied that an explosion occurred.

The cause of the fire, which Millea said burned an unspecified amount of crude oil, is under scrutiny by investigators from Cal-OSHA, the state’s worker safety agency, while a county hazardous materials team also was on the scene.

The PBF Energy facility has been plagued with a series of incidents since the massive blast two years ago that almost caused a catastrophic release of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid that could have killed and injured thousands.

Several contractors were injured in the Feb. 18, 2015, blast that shut down the refinery for more than a year, leading to soaring gas prices in Southern California.

ExxonMobil was fined more than $500 million for workplace violations related to the blast.

Since then, at least one leak of hydrofluoric acid and several fires have prompted the South Coast Air Quality Management District to propose a ban on hydrofluoric acid.

The latest fire in an ongoing series of “mishaps” including leaks, excessive flaring and power outages that have plagued the refinery in recent months added fuel to the arguments of opponents that the plant is a safety and environmental hazard.

U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu said in a statement Saturday that he plans to ask the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to include Saturday’s incident as part of an ongoing investigation into the problems at the trouble-plagued refinery that began two years ago.

“Congresswoman Maxine Waters and I requested the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to investigate the explosion two years ago,” Lieu said in the statement. “They have not yet completed their final investigation, and I will be asking the Chemical Safety Board to include today’s fire and explosion as part of their investigation.”

Lieu commended the AQMD for its proposal to phase out the use of modified hydrofluoric acid at the plant, one of only two refineries in California to rely on MHF.

“I urge SCAQMD to act with urgency,” said the South Bay Democrat. “Refineries are not supposed to have explosions. We need to ban MHF as soon as possible. God may not warn us again.”

The crowd gathered at 10 a.m. at Columbia Park on 190th Street, cheering the remarks of Lieu, Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi and other speakers, before marching the short distance to the refinery. Passing motorists supplied supportive honks.

Notably absent from the event was any sign of Torrance elected officials, although police officers in several patrol cars discreetly kept their eye on the peaceful protesters from a distance.

“I’m absolutely appalled,” said Torrance teacher Julie Stoll, referring to the lack of support from Torrance officials.

“I can’t believe they don’t have the guts to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong and MHF needs to be out of our community,’ ” she said. “I wish the Torrance City Council had the courage to say that.”

The large turnout surprised even the diverse group of participants unaccustomed to seeing such political activism in a conservative community.

Activists carried signs reading “Congratulations PBF, zero days explosion free” and “All lives matter” while chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, MHF has got to go.” Some said the turnout demonstrates the series of refinery disruptions has reached a crisis point.

North Torrance resident Daphne Wong, her husband, Eng, and their three children, ages 5 to 9, all walked to the refinery together despite the rain.

“It’s unacceptable we were put in harm’s way,” said Daphne Wong, who added that she does not believe the official line that Torrance is a safe community.

“If that was the case, we wouldn’t have seen another explosion today,” she added.

There was no sign of an announced “safety rally” at the refinery PBF had planned to hold for workers as a counterpoint to the demonstration so they could “reflect upon the (2015) incident.”

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