City News Service

South Coast Air Quality Management District Approves Restarting of Torrance Refinery After Explosion Last Year

A divided South Coast Air Quality Management District hearing board has approved an agreement that will authorize a restart of the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance that was damaged by an explosion, hampering Southland fuel production and contributing to gas price increases.

The vote was 3 to 2.

The rare Saturday session featured many hours of public testimony, and the vote didn't come until 8:15PM.

The agreement requires ExxonMobil to 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 restart procedure. A company spokeswoman says process is likely to take at least a week to complete.

According to the AQMD, the plan for 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."

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

ExxonMobil officials said the company "has been working cooperatively with South Coast Air Quality Management District staff on a restart plan that enhances community safety, protects the environment and supports the economy."

"We have installed new safety equipment and updated our process safety
management procedures for restarting and resuming full operations," according to the company. "The stringent conditions associated with startup are designed to minimize the impact to the community and the environment. Our restart procedures have been thoroughly evaluated by the AQMD and are consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Refinery Sector Rule and other relevant regulations."

If the AQMD hearing board approves the start-up plan, there's no word on when the refinery would actually be restarted.

Some residents near the refinery have criticized the start-up plan, saying no specifics have been provided about anticipated levels of pollution and claiming it was developed without any community input.

"This means that the community has the choice between unsafe operations, such as explosions, or excess air pollution that is harmful to people's health, neither of which is acceptable," Torrance resident Maureen Mauk told the Daily Breeze. "The hearing board should order ExxonMobil to
cease and desist startup."

The refinery, which has been out of operation since the blast, 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 deal, subject to "customary closing conditions and regulatory approvals," will also not be closed until the refinery is "restored to full working order," according to PBF Energy.

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 have blamed a breakdown in safety procedures for causing Feb. 18, 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.

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