Exxon Mobil asserts Torrance plant is safe

Exxon Mobil Corp. has stepped up its defense of the company's management of the Torrance oil refinery and response to an explosion there last February.

Speaking to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board during a public hearing Wednesday night, Torrance refinery manager Brian Ablett said Exxon Mobil has conducted its own investigations of the Feb. 18 explosion and “didn't find any evidence that the Feb. 18 incident posed any danger to the community.”

“Nothing, nothing is more important to Exxon Mobil than the safety of our employees … and our neighbors,” Ablett said.

The Chemical Safety Board held the hearing at Torrance City Hall in part to release findings from its investigation into the refinery explosion, which has been a major contributor to high gasoline prices in the Los Angeles area.

The investigation found multiple safety-management problems that led to the incident and endangered the lives of “many community members.” The oversight agency also said that Exxon Mobil has ignored or given incomplete responses to 49% of its subpoena requests.

Ablett accused the Chemical Safety Board of “overreach” in its request for documents. “It's important to remember that the CSB does not have unlimited jurisdiction,” he said.

But Vanessa Allen Sutherland, the board's chairwoman, said that “our jurisdiction is very broad. Our goal is to learn as much as possible.”

U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said during the hearing that he was troubled by Exxon Mobil's refusal to respond to all requests for documents and information.

“Refineries are not supposed to explode,” Lieu said. “What is it that they have to hide?”

Exxon Mobil is selling the refinery to PBF Energy, which has said the refinery must be repaired before the deal closes.

Wednesday night's hearing drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300. Many said they were employees or contractors at the refinery, and they defended Exxon Mobil.

Michelle Livergood, 53, who has lived in Torrance for 44 years, said Exxon Mobil officials once considered her “their worst nightmare.” But now a contractor at the plant, Livergood said she has learned how important safety is to the company.

“We work every day to be safe,” Livergood testified. “I do enjoy working there, and they're good people.”

Some residents criticized the refinery as a threat to the community that should be closed.

In addition to health and safety concerns the refinery might pose to nearby residents, emissions from the plant continue to contribute to climate change, Exxon Mobil's critics said.

“That refinery has to go,” said 58-year-old Joe Galliani, who has lived in Torrance for 23 years and works on climate issues for 350.org. “Exxon has no credibility in this city or in this country.”

The Torrance plant accounts for 10% of the state's refined gasoline capacity and 20% in Southern California. Since the explosion, Exxon Mobil has operated the plant at less than 20% normal capacity. That has contributed to L.A. region gasoline prices that have reached as high as $1.50 above the national average.

On Thursday, the U.S. average for a gallon of regular was $1.93. In the L.A. area the price was $2.99, according to AAA.

The high prices, strongly criticized by advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog, have helped other oil refiners' profits.

California gas prices typically run higher than the rest of the nation because of the mandated special blend of less-polluting fuel as well as higher taxes and fees. But the refinery outages have created inventory shortages that caused an even wider gap.

Lieu said many people don't want to see the refinery close, but he said more has to be done to ensure public safety.

“We want it to go back into full operation,” Lieu said. “We also want it to be safe.”

In addition to destroying the plant's pollution control system, the explosion spewed debris that nearly struck a tank filled with hydrofluoric acid. If the tank had ruptured and the acid had leaked out, those exposed could have suffered severe injuries or been killed.

“A near miss is an extraordinary event,” said Jerad Denton, a lawyer and investigator with the Chemical Safety Board.

Investigators said a lack of proper analysis of conditions, proper safeguards and timely maintenance of equipment contributed to the explosion.

The state is working on setting standards and requirements that ensure proper analysis to help prevent the kinds of troubles that led to the Torrance explosion.

Chemical Safety Board investigators said current California safety management guidelines lack important safety requirements, but if the proposed reforms were in place, they would likely have prevented the explosion.

Even so, Ablett dismissed reports about threats to public health and safety from the explosion.

“Contrary to speculation and the worst-case scenarios, they simply don't take into account the procedures we have in place,” Ablett said.

Chemical Safety Board member Kristen Kulinowski said she found it difficult to believe Exxon Mobil's defense that the tank containing hydrofluoric acid was not vulnerable to debris weighing tens of thousands of pounds hurtling through the air.

“I having a little hard time with that scenario,” Kulinowski said.

ivan.penn@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

5:45 p.m.: Updates with additional details and background

2:19 p.m.: Clarified that there are 333,000 residents, 71 schools and eight hospitals within a three-mile radius of the Exxon Mobil refinery, not within the city of Torrance.

12:22 p.m: This story has been updated with comments from Wednesday's hearing.

The original story posted a 2:35 p.m. on Wednesday

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