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Inspectors Seek Clues to Blast at Oil Refinery

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Federal, state and local investigators converged on the Texaco refinery in Wilmington on Friday in an effort to determine what caused the mammoth blast that tore through the plant Thursday night, injuring 16 and smashing windows several miles away.

Texaco officials said the explosion, which occurred in a processing tower used to convert heavy crude oil into fuels such as gasoline and kerosene, could have resulted from a leak in a high-pressure fuel pipe, but it was too early to tell.

The company said there were problems with an electrical feeder line shortly before the explosion, but whether that had anything to do with the blast was not known.

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About 500 residents who had been evacuated from a two-square-mile area around the plant returned to their homes Friday morning after spending the pre-dawn hours at two nearby schools. Officials said the evacuation had been precautionary, and that potentially toxic hydrogen sulfide fumes from the plant never reached dangerous levels.

Also Friday, the Coast Guard placed booms in the Dominguez Channel storm drain to stop oily, runoff water generated by firefighting operations from reaching Los Angeles Harbor. Coast Guard Lt. Nathalie Dreyfus said it appeared that the operation had been successful. “As far as I know, no oil has made it to the ocean,” Dreyfus said.

The 9:43 p.m. blast tore roofs from nearby buildings, hurled debris about the plant, shattered windows across Wilmington, Carson and Long Beach, and showed up as a “sonic boom” on sound recording equipment at Caltech in Pasadena, more than 20 miles away.

Lyndal Mize, a pipe fitter for an independent contractor, said he and five other men were dismantling a refining unit that had been shut down for routine maintenance Thursday night when they heard a loud noise at another unit about 150 yards away.

“It was a monster roar, like a jet engine,” Mize said. “It was so loud that I buried my neck down inside my shoulders because it hurt my ears.

“All of a sudden, the roar got louder and there was this bright orange light,” he said. “There was a momentary calm, then the shock wave hit us. It threw me sideways against the scaffolding.

“I fell 10 feet, hit the ground, did a shoulder roll and came up running,” Mize said. “I weigh over 200 pounds and it threw me down like a piece of old newspaper.”

Amazingly, despite the force of the blast and the intense heat generated by an immense fireball that rose into the night sky, the injuries were all minor--mostly small cuts and bruises caused by flying debris. All the injured were plant employees.

The blast touched off several fires at the plant, most of them fed by fuel from the shattered tower. The fires burned themselves out by about noon Friday.

Texaco officials said the plant will remain closed for at least a week.

As workers began the cleanup Friday afternoon, inspectors checked safety records at the plant, which showed there have been at least five accidents at the Texaco refinery over the last eight years. Details on some of them were sparse.

In 1984, a tower in the refinery’s petroleum processing unit exploded. In 1985, firefighters doused two fires at the refinery, including one that took nearly 23 hours to extinguish.

In 1986, seven employees were burned--one critically--when a heating vat ruptured, spattering hot crude oil over a work crew. In May, 1988, a hydrogen leak caused a fire that took about 90 minutes to douse. No one was injured in that blaze.

Officials from California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration declined comment Friday on how Texaco’s refinery in Wilmington compared to other local oil facilities in terms of worker safety and health.

However, agency records show that between January, 1979, and June, 1990, Cal/OSHA conducted at least 17 health or safety inspections at the Wilmington refinery and other nearby Texaco facilities.

At least six inspections were initiated after industrial accidents. Compliance inspectors found violations of health or safety standards on at least six occasions and issued at least one warning to the company, records show. It could not be determined how much in fines, if any, Texaco was obligated to pay for violating Cal/OSHA regulations.

Federal OSHA compliance inspectors have never inspected the Wilmington refinery for federal health and safety violations, said a spokesman at OSHA’s regional office in San Francisco.

Over the years, Texaco has been cited on a number of occasions by the Southern California Air Quality Management District for allegedly violating air pollution standards. The oil company has paid $241,000 in penalties, according to AQMD records.

The largest single settlement was made in May, 1991, when Texaco agreed to pay $107,500 after the AQMD accused the company of a number of violations, including failing to properly maintain a vapor recovery system, allowing cargo trucks and trailers to unload gasoline without a vapor recovery system and causing a public nuisance with odors from liquid and vapor leaks.

In 1990, the AQMD filed suit against Texaco for leaks at the refinery plant that allegedly were caused by negligence and that were not corrected quickly enough by the company. The air quality agency also accused Texaco of releasing contaminants from a nearby sulfur plant. The suit was dismissed after Texaco agreed to pay $25,000, an AQMD official said.

Rodney Rogers, a spokesman for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union in Lakewood, Colo., which represents about 35,000 oil workers nationally, said Texaco’s safety record is “no better or necessarily worse than any other oil company operating refineries. . . .

“It’s our contention that the whole industry is in sad disarray in terms of health and safety,” Rogers said. “We’ve had a tremendous number of explosions, fires and accidents just like the one at Texaco.”

Safety conditions have worsened at some refineries over the last several years as oil companies have tried to cut corners during the recession, Rogers said.

“They don’t perform routine maintenance like they used to . . . and they’re bringing in a lot of contract maintenance people who come in without any training--even regular employees don’t get good training,” Rogers said.

Robert E. Morris, manager of the refinery in Wilmington, defended the company’s safety record, saying Texaco last year won a safety award from the National Petroleum Refiners Assn.

“Our primary mission is to protect the public,” he said.

Cal/OSHA is heading the investigation into the causes of Thursday’s explosion.

California’s inspectors will be assisted by four federal OSHA investigators, according to Frank Strasheim, OSHA’s regional administrator. Local fire officials will also participate.

While not commenting on conditions that may have led to the explosion, Strasheim said he was impressed by preliminary reports indicating that refinery emergency crews responded promptly and efficiently to the crisis.

“It suggests to me pretty strongly that (the refinery) was well organized,” Strasheim said.

Mize, the worker who was sent sprawling by the blast, said he was confident about Texaco’s safety precautions.

“I’m fully satisfied that the plant is as safe as possible,” Mize said. “I have no qualms about going back.”

The closest homes to the site of the explosion are Navy houses just east of the Terminal Island Freeway, less than one-third of a mile from the refinery. One resident, 30-year-old Laura Bedell, said she glanced out a window just moments before the blast because she heard a loud hissing or whining sound.

“I was looking right at it and it just exploded, you know, ‘Kaboom!’ ” she said.

Her husband, Bob, was standing outside when the concussion showered him with glass from a bedroom window.

“You felt it inside, like somebody had come up and thumped you in the chest,” he said.

As he spoke, the Bedells’ 6-year-old son, Andrew, awoke from a nap, whimpering as he stared out a jagged hole in the living room window.

“It’s going to take him a while to get over this,” the boy’s father said.

Lynette Jackson, 38, who lives on West 25th Street in Long Beach, less than half a mile from the plant, had just fallen asleep when the explosion shattered her bedroom windows.

She said she grabbed her two young sons and they cowered together on the living room couch.

“We had a nice cuddle down here, we were so scared,” she said. “It was over after just a few seconds . . . but it wasn’t until I went outside that I saw the flames and figured out what must have happened.”

Times staff writers Eric Malnic, Janet Rae-Dupree, Victor Merina and Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this story.


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