Latest Torrance refinery fire sparks AQMD call for community hearing

February 19, 2017
In The News

Concerned about repeated problems at the PBF Energy-owned oil refinery in Torrance in the aftermath of a weekend fire, the region’s pollution-control agency said Sunday it plans to conduct a community hearing to get to the bottom of things.

“I’m very disappointed in the frequency of breakdowns, flaring, accidents and fires at the Torrance refinery and I’m concerned about the impact of these incidents to community residents,” said William A. Burke, chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District governing board, in a statement.

“The refinery must step up its efforts to reduce the frequency and severity of these episodes,” he said. “Toward that end, I am calling for a full hearing to investigate and resolve these matters.”

The board will announce specifics for the hearing “in the coming days,” Burke said. The meeting, to be held in Torrance, will give the agency’s staff and board an opportunity to discuss concerns about the refinery with community residents, he said.

Burke said the Saturday fire at the Torrance Refining Co. facility, which was extinguished by city firefighters within a half-hour after it erupted in the crude oil unit at 6 a.m., forced the plant to burn excess gases through a flare stack, causing excess air pollution.

No injuries were reported from the fire, which came on the two-year anniversary of a powerful explosion and fire at the then-ExxonMobil refinery that spewed industrial debris into the community. Just after the blaze, hundreds of residents participated in a previously scheduled protest rally and march to demand that PBF halt the refinery’s use of highly toxic modified hydrofluoric acid.

U.S. Rep Ted Lieu, a persistent refinery critic, issued a strongly worded statement Saturday suggesting the AQMD “act with urgency” in 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.

“We need to ban MHF as soon as possible,” Lieu said. “God may not warn us again.”

In his statement Sunday, Burke took note of the Feb. 18, 2015, explosion at the refinery and several other problems that have created angst in the community and given rise to two grass-roots community groups formed to demand safety improvements at the 190th Street facility.

He cited repeated flaring episodes at the refinery — three of them related to a loss of electrical power — that have resulted in excess emissions.

“On Oct. 11, 2016,” Burke noted, “the refinery lost all power in the early morning and flared thick black smoke for more than four hours. ... SCAQMD received 67 complaints from residents and issued a notice of violation to the refinery for causing a public nuisance.”

Just last week, PBF agreed to an AQMD administrative order requiring the facility to improve power reliability and reduce air pollution from power-related flaring incidents. While the refinery must meet specific milestones and deadlines under the order, Burke said, the overall effort will take years to complete.

“Residents have suffered too long from excess air pollution due to preventable flaring, not to mention fear of the next potential accident at the refinery,” Burke said. “At our upcoming hearing, we will discuss steps that the refinery should take now to reduce these potentially harmful incidents.”