California

Community Questions Refinery's Safety Assurances After Explosion

ExxonMobile refinery's staff doctor assures concerned members of the community that ash released from the explosion is not carcinogenic

Community members concerned over Wednesday's explosion, which showered particles of debris onto a South Bay neighborhood, challenged safety assertions by officials of the Torrance ExxonMobil plant Friday night during a sometimes testy town hall discussion.

The meeting occurred before the release of an air quality report that found emissions did not exceed health standards. 

"This whole community has been polluted with something--toxic or not," said Steve Goldsmith, one of a series of Torrance residents who described fibers and whitish dust raining from the sky.

More than two hundred attended the meeting, many standing.

"I get why you're concerned," said Brian Ablett, Refinery Manager, repeatedly telling those in attendance the company is committed to safety.  Ablett urged those affected by Wednesday's incident to call the ExxonMobil claims hotline, 844-631-2539. 

The materials that escaped were from a catalyst inside the unit and could be an irritant to the skin or if inhaled, but otherwise are not considered hazardous, according to Ablett.

They were identified as metal oxides and amorphous silica -- commonly known as diatomaceous earth -- in a statement ExxonMobile released Thursday night. In a question and answer session with reporters before the town hall -- the first time Ablett had spoken publicly of the explosion and its impact -- he said the fibers were from heat insulation in the damaged unit, similar to insulation found in a modern house, without asbestos.

Fiber of fiberglas and glass wool were noted in the findings published Saturday by the governmental entity responsible for monitoring regional air quality, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), which took its own samples for analysis.  No asbestos was found, and airborne levels of hydrocarbons, particulates and sulfur compounds "were consistent with levels that are typically seen in outdoor air," the AQMD report stated.

AQMD tested specifically for hexavalent chromonium, a known carcinogen, and in fallout samples found levels below 60 parts per billion, "which is over 250 tims below th California state (OEHHA) Residential Soil Screeing level," acording to the report.

The AQMD also disclosed there was initial concern that radioactive material may have been released, but said that was refuted within three hours of the explosion.

During the town hall, Ablett was accompanied by a medical doctor on staff at the Torrance refinery: Ellyn McIntosh, MD, MPH, the site occupational health manager. Responding to questions, she acknowledged the released substances could be an irritant to skin or eyes, and trigger breathing difficulties for asthmatics, but insisted the substances were not toxic, and rejected the suggestion they are associated with cancer.

"As far as being a carcinogenic, that is not really accurate," Dr. McIntosh said.

What caused the explosion in an "Electrostatic Precipitator," Ablett said is not yet known. It is contained in a larger section of the refinery known as the Fluid Catalytic Cracking Unit, where a problem had become apparent Monday and automatically shut it down, Ablett said.

Fortunately, there were no workers in the immediate area of the Precipitator at the time of the explosion. Some of the injuries, he said, were incurred as workers ran from the area. The four treated Wednesday at Long Beach Memorial Hospital were released later that same day.

Several audience members questioned why the refinery did not activate the siren alert system that the community has heard previously during periodic testing, but not Wednesday morning.

Ablett said it was because refinery staff was able to take "fence-line" readings early on and determine that the released substances were not hazardous. Pressed further by questioners who said the public ought to have been notified immediately, Ablett said the decision will be reviewed during ExxonMobil's internal investigation of how the emergency was handled.

As it was, about 90 minutes after the explosion, the city of Torrance sent out reverse 911 calls to the neighborhoods surrounding the 750-acre refinery, advising residents to close windows and stay inside.

Torrance Unified School Districts directed 14 of its schools, with an enrollment of some 12,000 children, to shelter in place until the order was lifted later in the morning.

One woman in the audience, Sherry Lear, said the private Montessori school attended by her son, who has asthma, was not notified to bring children inside, and they remained outside half an hour after the explosion.

"Standing here as a parent, this is very scary to me," Lear said. "I'm not happy with the response on this."

Ablett replied: "We will seriously take a look at that."

Others worried about the pollution released after the explosion when fuel was burned off through a flare stack. One questioner asked how much was flared off, and when Ablett replied he had not brought the numbers with him, she chided: "Why are we having a meeting and you conveniently don't have the information tonight?"

The AQMD report published online Saturday revealed that about half an hour after the explosion, ExxonMobil notified the Governor's Office of Emergency Services that the refinery released more than 500 pounds of SoX (oxides of sulfur).  But levels of airborne sulfur compounds as measured later by AQMD did not exceed health standards, AQMD stated.

Also speaking were two representatives of the United Steelworkers Union, which represents
refinery workers, and currently is striking Tesoro. The union speakers said refineries need to take greater steps for safety.

The refinery in Torrance dates to 1929, when much of the surrounding area was open field, though homes were already appearing in the adjacent residential neighborhood along Del Amo Boulevard east of Crenshaw Boulevard. Ablett, who said he previously had overseen two other refineries in his 27 years with ExxonMobil, was assigned to manage the Torrance facility nine months ago.

Shortly after Ablett took charge, California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) began a series of inspections that found 14 violations -- 12 deemed general, and two serious -- more violations than had been found in the previous four years. Ablett pointed out that last year Cal/OSHA instituted a more detailed inspection procedure, and believes that explains the increase. He called the violations "regrettable," but said the safety issues that were identified have been fixed.

Cal/OSHA issued an order prohibiting use of the damaged precipitator. Repair work cannot begin until the investigation is concluded, Ablett said.

For now, the refinery is not producing gasoline, though it still has some reserves, Ablett revealed. He said there is a workaround possible so that the refinery could resume gasoline production before the Fluid Catalytic Cracker can be brought back on line, but he declined to estimate what that would be.

The role the refinery plays in the economy of Torrance and local employment was acknowledged by some who asked questions. Also recalled was the period in the 1980's when the South Bay was rocked by a series of accidents at the Torrance facility and other refineries. In Torrance, there was a consent decree that to this day requires ExxonMobil to take certain safety precautions.

Some wondered why there is still a refinery so close to residential neighborhoods. But others, including Joe Mendez, see it as an asset, so long as it is operated safely.

"We certainly don't want you to go back to the 1980's, " Mendez said.

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