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2 Hurt as 2nd Fire in Week Hits Torrance Oil Refinery

Times Staff Writer

A flash fire Wednesday morning in a unit at the Mobil Oil Corp. refinery in Torrance sent two workers to a hospital with minor injuries.

It was the second time in less than a week that a small fire has broken out at the sprawling refinery, which was also rocked by a major explosion and fire Nov. 24.

In the incident Wednesday, two Mobil workers were injured about 8 a.m. when a “minor explosion” took place at the top of a drum containing hardened coke, a coal-like byproduct of the refinery process, Torrance Fire Marshall Denny Haas said.

Sylvester Harris, 43, of Norwalk was treated at Little Company of Mary Hospital for facial burns and abrasions. Charles Powell, 29, of Cypress was sent to the hospital for observation after being knocked down by the blast and suffering abrasions.

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Industrial Accident

Torrance Fire Chief Scott Adams described the incident as “an industrial accident” rather than a problem in the refinery’s chemical processes such as the acid buildup that caused the Nov. 24 blast.

Mobil employee relations manager Dan Mumford said the two employees suffered minor injuries because they were behind a thick barrier when the flash fire occurred in the coke drum.

“Flash fire is probably accurate. It happened real fast, then it goes away, there was no resultant fire,” Mumford said. “Basically, the drum had been cooled and opened in preparation for the mechanical removal of the coke.”

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The cause of the fire is under investigation, and damage was expected to be minor, he said.

Coke is normally stored in drums to cool and solidify. Then it is removed and stored in piles until it is sold and shipped overseas for use as fuel.

On Christmas Eve, a small fire in a sulfur unit at the refinery sent a rotten egg odor wafting across parts of Torrance, sparking numerous complaints from nearby residents and office workers.

After receiving 30 complaints, the South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a public nuisance citation to Mobil because of the hydrogen sulfide odor.

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The two fires of the past week came as Torrance city officials are preparing an in-depth study on safety at the refinery. The inquiry began after the explosion and fire Nov. 24, which injured four people, broke windows in nearby homes and businesses, and sparked a spectacular blaze that burned for two days. Damage to the refinery from the explosion and fire was estimated at several million dollars.

The refinery, which processes California crude oil into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other petroleum products, is operating at only about 80% of capacity because of the November fire, Mumford said.


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