The tremendous oil refinery explosion that shook much of Los Angeles on Thursday did more to the surrounding community than blow out windows and rattle houses. It resurrected the nagging question of whether tens of thousands of residents can safely coexist within blocks of more than a dozen oil refineries in the Los Angeles Basin.
The old bean fields and vacant lots that enveloped the refineries decades ago have made way for housing tracts, schools, churches and parks. And many who live around them are questioning the quality of life with a refinery as a neighbor.
“They say it’s safe, but I don’t see how,” said Alonzo McKinley of Long Beach, who had been jolted from his chair by the blast. He looked warily across the street at the cracking towers and smokestacks of the Texaco facility and at an Arco plant just north of it. For the first time in seven years, he considered the notion that he might live in a dangerous place.
With 12 refineries, Los Angeles has the greatest number of people at risk from a refinery catastrophe, said Fred Millar, a director at Friends of the Earth, a Washington environmental group.
“The first (risk) is an explosion and fire. The second is that an explosion or fire can also cause release of a . . . toxic gas cloud. The chemical and oil industry is in deep hiding about these dangers,” Millar said.
Refinery explosions, accidents and fires that have resulted in injury are by no means rare.
Two major fires and a series of accidents at the Mobil facility in Torrance, which the city once sued as a public nuisance, have caused at least six deaths and scores of injuries since 1979. An accidental blast of steam at Chevron’s El Segundo refinery injured 10 contract maintenance workers in January. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced this week that it will seek more than $250,000 in penalties against four petroleum refineries in Wilmington, Long Beach and Torrance for violating clean air laws.
Most victims of industrial accidents are employees. But refinery neighbors have not forgotten the gruesome death of Cynthia Moore, who was incinerated in 1979 when her car stalled at the Mobil plant in Torrance on the way to a concert. When she tried to start her car, a spark ignited fumes that had leaked from a tank farm.
“These things are Bhopals in slow motion. And the refineries don’t seem to fix anything until something blows,” said Bob Mars, a Torrance attorney representing 600 of Mobil’s neighbors, referring to the Union Carbide accident in India that killed thousands.
A battalion of state, federal and local agencies are charged with ensuring refinery safety--from air emissions to work site regulations.
Two inspection crackdowns by Cal/OSHA in the last six years at refineries in the South Bay turned up some problems but “no really bad situations about ready to blow up,” said Mark Carleson, the agency’s deputy chief of field operations.
Oil officials say the industry goes to great lengths to protect residents in a city that uses more gasoline than any other in the nation.
“It’s safe,” said Kelly McAndrew, a Texaco spokeswoman. “We take all the precautions we possibly can. We really want residents to be familiar with the refinery so they don’t have unfounded fears.”
Texaco sent representatives into nearby neighborhoods with flyers in English and Spanish advertising an 800 number that may be used to report damages. The representatives “apologized for any inconveniences.”
While acknowledging that there were problems at Mobil’s plant in the 1980s, spokesman Jim Carbonetti called Mobil’s recent record for safety outstanding.
But public demands that the oil industry make refineries safe are renewed with every accident. The Texaco plant’s neighbors were already inquiring Friday about taking legal action for property damage and health complaints, Mars said.
“People are asserting themselves and demanding their right to safe living conditions and clean air,” Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert said.
Public outrage from a 1987 explosion and two-day fire at the Mobil plant prompted some changes. The corporation is under a court order to find a substitute for the deadly hydrofluoric acid it uses at its Torrance facility. Mobil also formed a community advisory board to respond to residents’ concerns and be a better neighbor.
But critics called some of Mobil’s responses public relations tactics that neglect safety issues.
Less than first-rate equipment was used when refineries expanded production in the 1940s to meet the needs of World War II in the belief that operations would be reduced when the fighting ended, Mars said. Instead, Los Angeles fell in love with the automobile and fuel production has steadily increased. But few plants were upgraded, Mars said.
“The refineries don’t seem to want to fix anything until something blows. . . . Many homeowners feel betrayed,” Mars said.
“To an oil company, it’s a lot cheaper to just pay the fine rather than spend millions fixing the faulty equipment,” Mars said.
“The first priority at Mobil in Torrance, there is no doubt, is safety,” said Carbonetti, the Mobil spokesman. “There has been no hesitation on our part to do what’s necessary to protect our employees and the community and to comply with any and all regulations. There is no way we could allow anything unsafe to exist in the refinery.”
Community activists said they will continue to press for more safety, but conceded that the refineries are probably here to stay.
Times staff writer Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this story.
Refining Oil in L.A. County Thursday’s blast has resurrected concerns over whether residents can safely coexist next to the county’s 12 operating refineries. Here are their locations: 1. Chevron, El Segundo 2. Arco, Carson 3. Mobil, Torrance 4. Texaco, Wilmington 5. Ultramar, Wilmington 6. Fletcher, Carson 7. MacMillan, Signal Hill 8. Huntway, Wilmington 9. Unocal, Carson 10. Unocal, Wilmington 11. Powerine, Santa Fe Springs 12. Paramount, Paramount