Explosion Rocks Texaco Refinery in Wilmington
A spectacular explosion and fire ripped through the troubled Texaco refinery in Wilmington early Monday morning, rocking neighborhoods like an earthquake, curbing production at the state’s eighth largest refinery and sending gasoline prices higher on West Coast wholesale markets.
No injuries were reported in the 7:24 a.m. explosion inside hydrotreater unit 4, a complex that extracts sulfur from crude oil to produce gasoline and diesel fuel. County health officials monitoring air quality in nearby neighborhoods reported no immediate health hazards from the fire.
But black smoke soared thousands of feet into the air, raining a fine dust and metal debris on nearby businesses and homes before firefighters contained the blaze about three hours after it began.
The force of the explosion, whose cause is under investigation, shook boats docked 2 1/2 miles away in the San Pedro harbor and sent a hot gust of wind whipping past homes more than eight miles away in Cerritos.
“I thought it was an airplane that had crashed,” said Silvia Santos, who lives in a small apartment complex down the street from the refinery on Pacific Coast Highway.
The explosion rattled nerves in the region’s financial markets as well.
Wholesale prices for gasoline delivered on the West Coast jumped 2.5 cents to 3 cents per gallon Monday as videotape of the billowing smoke was broadcast nationwide.
The Wilmington plant refines 98,000 barrels of crude oil a day, producing about 6% of the gasoline used daily by Californians.
The explosion comes as the state’s gas supplies are recovering from a shortage that sent prices skyrocketing last spring. Analysts said the blast may end a downward spiral in prices that in recent weeks had made the Los Angeles market one of the nation’s cheapest.
“For West Coast prices, it’s a pretty big deal,” said Al Lindseth, a futures trader with GSC Energy in Atlanta. “That’s a significant up move.”
The analysts added that the loss of gasoline production at the Texaco plant, if prolonged, could affect prices more here than elsewhere. That is because, since June 1, the state’s clean air laws have required gas stations to sell clean-burning fuel that only California refineries--and a few others worldwide--can produce.
Experts said California’s self-imposed limits leave the market here highly vulnerable to price spikes caused by interruptions in refinery production.
While the explosion spooked regional traders, it did not affect national wholesale gasoline markets. And it remains to be seen whether the explosion will take a bite out of consumers’ pocketbooks.
The hydrotreater unit knocked out by the fire produces 28,000 barrels of gas and diesel fuel a day, but Texaco officials said some of that lost capacity may be diverted to the other three operating units at the refinery.
“If the wholesale price stays up, eventually it will shake its way to retail,” said John Vautrain, manager of the Long Beach office of Purvin & Gertz, an engineering and consulting firm. “The question is how much damage was done [to the refinery].”
The explosion was the latest of several mishaps at the Texaco facility in recent years. An October 1992 explosion sent 16 people to the hospital, forced several hundred to evacuate their homes and spawned more than 4,500 property damage claims against the company.
The Texaco facility also has been the target of numerous citations for safety and air quality violations issued by local, state and federal environmental regulators.
In one 1994 settlement, Texaco agreed to pay a $550,000 penalty to the South Coast Air Quality Management District in a case stemming from the 1992 blast and 28 other violations dating back to 1991.
The AQMD cited the company for creating a public nuisance as a result of significant air emissions caused by the explosion. A Texaco spokeswoman said at the time that the oil company decided to settle to avoid costly litigation and did not admit any wrongdoing.
Even under the best circumstances, the Texaco refinery is one of the largest single sources of industrial air pollution in Southern California.
It emits about 1 1/2 million pounds of sulfur dioxide each year, eclipsed only by the nearby Arco, Union Oil and Mobil refineries, according to AQMD data.
Texaco officials defended the refinery.
A spokeswoman said that refinery workers train monthly with the Los Angeles county and city fire departments as well as with the Long Beach Fire Department.
“Yes, this plant is safe, and yes, we realize that accidents happen and that’s what happened today,” spokeswoman Barbara Kornylo said.
“We have approximately 525 Texaco employees who work here on a daily basis who are trained not only expertly in their job but to make sure safety is our top priority,” she said. “We have had violations in the past. I think we have learned from those and tried to improve.”
Those who live and work near the refinery remained skeptical.
“One of these days, we’re going to die,” said Francisca Garcia, 33, whose family lives several blocks from the refinery.
Garcia and other neighbors spent Monday coping with burning eyes and scratchy throats caused by fine particles that were carried by the winds. The neighbors said the blast seemed like a repeat of the 1992 explosion.
The earth shook. A loud hiss and a thunderous boom followed.
Santos was lying in bed when the explosion rocked her ground-floor apartment. Her 6-year-old son Richard began crying and wanted to leave immediately. But she calmed him down after she realized that it was not an earthquake or a plane crash but a refinery explosion.
“I was afraid because this had happened before,” said Santos, standing outside her modest apartment. “Now I would like to move.”
More than two miles away, in the San Pedro harbor, shock waves from the blast shook Edson Jacobs’ 29-foot sailboat.
“My boat wobbled in the water,” said Jacobs, 40. “It was a big boom. It woke me right out of bed. I came outside and saw all the black smoke. The sky was covered.”
Several miles away in Cerritos, homeowners said they could feel a hot wind gust just minutes after the blast.
Many who live in the immediate area said they feared that they would again have to evacuate their homes, as they did after the 1992 blast. But Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson) came to the front gates of the refinery for a series of news conferences in which she tried to reassure worried residents that all was safe.
“This fire is contained,” she told reporters, adding that she opened her Carson field office on Veteran’s Day to answer questions. “It seems like all the employees are safe. It is not like it was in 1992. Everything is OK.”
More than 150 Los Angeles city and county firefighters responded to the blaze, which by midday had fizzled into a lifeless gray cloud hovering over the refinery and the mostly industrial area that is dotted by auto repair shops and metal recycling outfits.
The Los Angeles city fire arson unit came to the scene, as it does in any case when a fire involves more than $25,000 in property damage, said Fire Department spokesman Alex Arriola.
But fire officials said that the site of the explosion was still too hot to enter late Monday, and that they would not be able to determine a cause until they entered the facility.
Texaco officials and Millender-McDonald discounted speculation that the fire could have been related to a recent controversy in which top company officials were tape-recorded making disparaging remarks about African American employees.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with that,” Millender-McDonald said.
Times staff writer Marla Cone and correspondents Deborah Belgum and John Cox contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
L.A. County Oil Refineries
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
13. World Oil, Lunday Thagard, South Gate
Fires and explosions have wracked local refineries over the past decade. From Times files, here is where and when the accidents took place:
Nov. 11, 1996
Texaco Inc., Wilmington: Explosion and fire with no injuries or evacuations.
Oct. 24, 1996
Ultramar Corp., Wilmington: Explosion injures one worker.
Sept. 7, 1996
Mobil Oil Corp., Torrance: Explosion and fire erupts with no injuries or evacuations.
June 23, 1995
Ultramar, Wilmington: Explosion sparks a fire with no injuries.
Oct. 19, 1994
Mobil Oil, Torrance: Blast injures 28 workers.
Oct. 8, 1992
Texaco., Wilmington: Blast injures 16 workers, 500 residents evacuated.
Chevron, El Segundo: Steam blast injures 10 workers.
March 17, 1991
Unocal, Wilmington: Blaze breaks out with no injuries.
Nov. 5, 1990
Mobil Oil, Torrance: Series of explosions sets off fire severely burning an employee.
Aug. 13, 1990
Arco, Carson: Fire erupts with no injuries
March 15, 1990
Shell Oil, Carson: Explosion and fire injures two workers.
Feb. 19, 1990
Powerine Oil, Santa Fe Springs: Chemical leak injures seven workers.
Jan. 2, 1990
Arco, Carson: Fire erupts with no injuries.
Nov. 17, 1989
Chevron, El Segundo: Blaze breaks out with no injuries.
Feb. 16, 1989
Ultramar, Wilmington: Explosion and fire forced evacuation of 750 workers. No injuries.
Feb. 15, 1989
Mobil Oil, Torrance: Small fire without injuries.
Nov. 21, 1988
Arco, Carson: Fire injures one worker.
July 29, 1988
Arco, Carson: Fire causes partial shutdown at refinery. No injuries.
July 15, 1988
Mobil Oil, Torrance: Two unrelated explosions and fires occurred on the same day, one worker dies, 10 seriously injured.
Nov. 24, 1987
Mobil Oil, Torrance: Two-day fire shatters windows in nearby homes, injures 10 workers and causes $17 million in damage.
Oct. 2, 1986
Arco, Carson: Fire causes no injuries.
Aug. 24, 1986
Arco, Carson: Fire erupts, causing minor injuries to three workers.
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