Investigation planned for repeated explosions at Torrance oil refinery

February 20, 2017
In The News

Smog regulators said they are "very disappointed" with repeated explosions and fires at the Torrance Refining Company, and announced plans for a hearing to investigate smog coming from a series of explosions at the gasoline refinery.

South Coast Air Quality Management District officials announced the action one day after a fire broke out in the massive refinery, at 3700 W. 190th St. Firefighters were called to the plant just before 6 a.m. Saturday, and
plant employees and firefighters had the fire out in about 30 minutes, according to Torrance firefighters.

The AQMD' chairman, William A. Burke, said today that the frequent explosions have caused smoke, as gas and petrochemical residue is "flared" -- disposed of by burning in violation of AQMD smog permits.

"Residents have suffered too long from excess air pollution due to preventable flaring, not to mention fear if the next potential accident at the refinery," Burke said in an unusual weekend statement.

The sprawling complex was owned by the giant ExxonMobil until September, 2015. That corporation has spun it off to a smaller company, PBF Energy of New Jersey, and residents are fearful that a big explosion could trigger a deadly, widespread leak of toxic, caustic gas.

The troubled refinery is one of very few that use a component called an alkylization unit, which includes a tank holding substantial amounts of a modified hydrofluoric acid, or MHF.

An explosion exactly two years before Saturday hurled a hot, jagged and heavy piece of metal towards the alkylization unit, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found that to be dangerous. Had the metal hit the tank, a toxic cloud with "the potential to cause serious injury or death to many community members" would spread across the South Bay and Long Beach areas.

Residents and elected officials pointed out that the Saturday fire came on the two-year anniversary of an explosion and fire at the same refinery. Congressman Ted Lieu, D-Los Angeles, said Saturday it is "unacceptable to have deadly MHF at failing refineries.

"Congresswoman Maxine Waters and I requested the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to investigate the explosion two years ago. They have not yet completed their final investigation and I will be asking (them) to include today's fire and explosion as part of their investigation."

The AQMD noted that many of the explosions and fires at the Torrance refinery have been consequences of electrical power outages, and the smog agency has ordered the company to improve electrical reliability to reduce
fires and smog.

AQMD staffers said the refinery has -- since the major explosion in 2015 -- had flared gas after power outages on four occasions, and the outage on Oct. 11 caused "thick black smoke" to cover belch forth over the South Bay
for more than four hours.

The City of Torrance issued a "shelter in place" order, and 67 people complained of respiratory problems to the AQMD. The agency issued a Notice of Violation to the refinery for causing a public nuisance.

"The refinery must step up its efforts to reduce the frequency and severity of these episodes," Burke said today.

He said the agency staff will soon announce plans for a community hearing where the AQMD staff and governing board will discuss the issue.

Attempts to reach refinery officials Saturday and Sunday were not successful.