Southern California

Regulators to Monitor Restart of ExxonMobil Refinery in Torrance

Southland air-quality regulators said Thursday they will be actively monitoring this weekend's planned restart of a the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance that was damaged by an explosion last year.

ExxonMobil officials have begun notifying residents near the refinery of the planned restart, which is expected to occur between 7 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. Sunday.

Restarting the plant is expected to temporarily result in pollutant emissions higher than normally permitted at the refinery. A South Coast Air Quality Management District hearing board, however, has approved the re-start plan, and regulators said they would be keeping a close watch on the operation.

"We are taking a number of steps to protect nearby residents when the refinery starts up and resumes operations,'' said Wayne Nastri, acting executive officer of the AQMD. "One of those measures includes deploying an air monitoring network to measure fine particulate levels in the air around the refinery during the startup process.''

ExxonMobil officials said the restrictions imposed by the AQMD on the operation will "minimize impact to the community and the environment as we resume full operations.''

The refinery has been largely out of operation since Feb. 18, 2015, when an explosion caused extensive damage to the facility, injured four people and led to spiking Southern California gas prices.

Under the restart agreement approved by the AQMD hearing board, ExxonMobil must pay about $5 million in penalties for air pollution violations that resulted from the February 2015 blast. It must also follow a multi-step procedure aimed at minimizing emissions during the re-start procedure.

AQMD officials have said restarting the damaged facility will result in excessive emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, as a result of an altered start-up procedure "necessary to improve the safety of their operations.''

Agency documents indicate the refinery "is not currently in violation of district rules'' or its operating permit, but the restart "is expected to result in a violation of district rules and the facility's existing Title V permit conditions.'' 

The refinery was sold to New Jersey-based oil refining company PBF Energy in September. The $527.5 million deal is expected to close in the second quarter of 2016.

The 750-acre refinery has a capacity of 155,000 barrels per day. With the purchase, PBF will increase its total capacity to about 900,000 barrels per day, according to the company.

Federal authorities blamed a breakdown in safety procedures for causing the 2015 explosion. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the trouble began six days before the blast when a problem developed with a piece of equipment known as an expander, forcing the plant's "fluid catalytic cracking'' unit to be shut down.

That shutdown led to steam being forced into a reactor, and some was leaking from an open flange that was preventing plant employees from carrying out repair work, the board found. When a supervisor reduced the flow of steam, it caused hydrocarbons to flow into the plant's electrostatic precipitator, where the hydrocarbons were ignited, causing the explosion.

According to the board, plant employees deviated from standard procedures while trying to repair the catalytic cracking unit, but they used an outdated "variance'' that is required prior to moving ahead with the work. Investigators noted that a similar situation led to a 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond.

State regulators issued 19 citations against ExxonMobil and proposed penalties totaling $566,600 in response to the explosion. Cal/OSHA officials said a 2007 safety review found problems with flammable vapor in the plant's electrostatic precipitator, but no corrective actions were taken. Regulators noted that the plant's fluid catalytic cracker had not been working properly for as long as nine years prior to the blast.

Copyright City News Service

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