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Air quality district votes to allow Exxon Mobil to restore Torrance refinery

 Air quality district votes to allow Exxon Mobil to restore Torrance refinery
An explosion last year at Exxon Mobil’s refinery in Torrance prompted neighbors to call for the facility’s permanent closure.
(Christina House / For The Times)

The South Coast Air Quality Management District voted late Saturday to allow Exxon Mobil to fully restore its refinery in Torrance after an explosion at the facility last year.

After nearly 12 hours of public comment and expert testimony at Torrance City Hall, the district’s board voted 3 to 2 to approve the order.

ExxonMobil will also pay approximately $5 million in penalties for air pollution violations as a result of the 2015 explosion and violations that could occur during the startup of the refinery. Half of the monies will be earmarked for projects to benefit the communities surrounding the Torrance facility.

“We agree with the decision of the South Coast Air Quality Management District Hearing Board and appreciate its hard work and guidance as we work to safely restart the Torrance Refinery,” Exxon Mobil said in a statement.

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The public hearing started at 9 a.m. and the board listened for hours as dozens of neighbors of the Torrance  facility testified against the proposal. The board’s vote was taken shortly before 9 p.m.

The February 2015 explosion, which triggered state and federal investigations, led to higher gas prices in Los Angeles than the rest of the nation. The fully operational refinery provided a fifth of the refined gasoline capacity in Southern California and 10% of the statewide capacity.

But the explosion prompted neighbors to call for permanently closing the facility after reports revealed that harmful chemicals may have been released as a result of the blast.

The approval of Exxon Mobil’s request to fully restore the Torrance refinery could help tighten the gap in gasoline prices between the Los Angeles region and the other areas around the country.

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The facility has operated at less than 20% of its normal capacity since the explosion.

A return to full service is expected to lead to a sale of the plant to New Jersey-based PBF Energy, which announced last fall that it was acquiring the refinery should it return to full operations.

Exxon Mobil and PBF said they expect to close the deal by mid-2016.

The acquisition, experts said, could help lower California gas prices, depending on how aggressively PBF decides to operate.

The company says it intends to fully utilize the Torrance plant.

“PBF is a competitive, growth-oriented, merchant refiner that is excited to be expanding into Southern California,” said spokesman Michael Karlovich.

“After we purchase the Torrance refinery, we will begin selling into an established wholesale market, so having a new merchant refiner in the region ... should further increase competitiveness.”

Gordon Schremp, senior fuels analyst for the California Energy Commission, said Exxon Mobil’s plans for safely returning Torrance to full operations appear to have regulatory support. Now that Exxon Mobil has approval, it will take several days for the plant to reach capacity.

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stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

Twitter: @sjceasar

ivan.penn@latimes.com

Twitter: @ivanlpenn

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