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State senators question Exxon Mobil over Torrance refinery explosion

Torrance residents, oil industry representatives debate Exxon Mobil refinery blast at state Senate hearing

The auditorium at Torrance City Hall was nearly full Thursday night as several state senators heard testimony related to a Feb. 18 explosion at a nearby oil refinery.

A local resident described her husband entering their house, three miles from Exxon Mobil Corp.’s plant in Torrance, covered in white ash after the blast. A representative of the fire department said the ash fell like snow as far as Redondo Beach.

Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 675, said union members were angered by the incident, which left four contractors with minor injuries.

“They don’t like that they might get killed,” he said.

The State Senate’s Energy, Utility and Communications Committee paired with the Environmental Quality Committee to hold the hearing, which was attended by activists, experts and residents — some accompanied by their children.   

Panelists from various government agencies described how they dealt with gas leaks after the blast, posted air quality data online and conducted frequent inspections of the sprawling facility.

U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said he and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) plan to send a formal request Friday to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board asking for an investigation of the Torrance blast.

Brian Ablett, who has managed the refinery for nine months but has spent years at Exxon, apologized for the accident. He said the blast occurred due to excess pressure in the facility’s electrostatic precipitator — an emission control device that removes fine particles of dust from the atmosphere and cleans the exhaust from the refining process.

He said the investigation into the cause of the explosion would likely take months, but emphasized that there were no health consequences.

State Sen. Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) said he was skeptical that Exxon could prevent future incidents.

“Your testimony to me is not convincing,” he told Ablett to applause from onlookers. “We’re going to hold you accountable.”

Dozens of audience members spoke during the public comment period, stretching the hearing to more than three hours.

A representative of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce urged senators not to jump to conclusions about Exxon in an attempt to score political points. A member of the Western States Petroleum Assn. trade group took the podium, as did a former refinery employee who touted the plant’s safety culture.

A local business owner complained that the blast kept customers from her store. Other residents said Exxon should have immediately triggered its community notification alarm.

“Torrance has grown up around the refinery,” said Laura Moreno, a Torrance resident and Redondo Beach teacher. “But maybe the refinery should grow around Torrance and be accountable to us for a change.”

The Torrance refinery has 1,100 workers processing an average of 155,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline the plant produces each year accounts for as much as 20% of Southern California’s supply.

On Wednesday, at a meeting with analysts at the New York Stock Exchange, Exxon’s senior vice president Darren W. Woods said the company is “still in the process of securing the site.”

The affected machinery has “quite a bit of damage,” he said. Only parts of the refinery are operational, and Woods said Exxon is “working on facilities to get other parts up in the next month.”

But residents aren’t concerned solely about safety. Some complain that the shutdown has caused Los Angeles pump prices to surge nearly a dollar to $3.53 a gallon — the most expensive of any metropolitan area in the U.S.

On March 24, the senate energy committee will partner with the transportation committee on another hearing in Sacramento to address the explosion’s effect on transportation fuel pricing.

Most energy analysts have blamed the bulk of the surge on the Torrance explosion as well as the decision last month by Tesoro Corp. to idle a Bay Area plant in response to a nationwide strike. At full capacity, the two plants can process up to 17% of the state’s gasoline supply.

Up until last week, Californians had spent 2015 enjoying low prices at the pump, due to a surge in crude oil inventory that sent petroleum prices plunging this summer to 6-year troughs.

Oil exploration and extraction companies as well as their suppliers are hurting, according to outplacement consultant firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

American employers announced 50,579 job cuts last month, up 21% from a year ago, the firm said Thursday. Of those cuts, 36% were related to oil prices.

“These companies, while reluctant to completely shutter operations, are being forced to trim payrolls to contain costs,” said John A. Challenger, the group’s chief executive.

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