The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has concluded that a 2015 explosion at a Torrance, California, refinery which at the time was then owned by Exxon Mobil Corp could have been prevented. CSB Chair Vanessa Allen Sutherland said in a statement:
This explosion and near miss should not have happened. The CSB’s report concludes the unit was operating without proper procedures.
The CSB found that weaknesses in the Torrance refinery’s safety program led to the blast. The blast blew a large piece of debris 80 feet (24.38 m) to nearby alkylation unit settler tanks containing toxic hydrofluoric acid, which the board called a “near-miss event.”
Four workers suffered minor injuries and part of the refinery underwent a lengthy shutdown, contributing to an increase in the state’s gasoline prices. The Torrance refinery supplies 20 percent of the gasoline in Southern California and 10 percent statewide. The CSB board found that the explosion occurred when volatile hydrocarbons flowed backward through an idled gasoline-producing fluidic catalytic cracking unit (FCCU) to a pollution control device called an electrostatic precipitator (ESP). The generation of sparks by the ESP ignited the hydrocarbons setting off the explosion. The board, which has no regulatory authority and does not assess fines, found that the FCCU was operating without pre-established limits for a shutdown. The agency also said Exxon relied on safeguards that it could not be sure were working and that a critical safeguard failed.
Residents near the refinery want local and state officials to ban the use of hydrofluoric acid in making octane-boosting gasoline additives. Hydrofluoric acid is a highly toxic chemical that can kill or seriously injure at a concentration of 30 parts per million. As a gas it forms a ground-hugging cloud. The board said it has asked a federal court to enforce subpoenas requiring Exxon to provide information about safeguards to prevent or mitigate a release of hydrofluoric acid.
PBF Energy Inc. (PBF), which acquired the refinery last year, according to spokesman Michael Karlovich “has already implemented a number of measures that address the CSB’s recommendations.” He said in a statement: “We plan to complete two studies later this year that will address the remaining recommendations.”
The CSB determines root causes of chemical plant accidents and provides recommendations to companies, industry organizations and regulatory agencies. Exxon should be held accountable for its wrongdoing. It appears that other state and federal agencies will have to do that. Hopefully, somebody will!
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