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CSB says explosion at California refinery could have been "catastrophic"

02 October 2015

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the federal agency charged with investigating the February 18 explosion and fire at ExxonMobil's Torrance refinery, has said the incident could have had far more serious consequences than the four workers who were injured. A piece of equipment weighing 36 tonnes was thrown more than 30 metres in the blast, landing close to a tank of hydrofluoric acid.

Stock image
Stock image

Had the tank been broached, a lethal cloud of toxic gas could have spread over the nearby Los Angeles suburbs.

In an interview with CBS News, Vanessa Sutherland, the recently appointed head of the CSB, , said: "We were really, really lucky. I think it is of concern to us that we have a facility that had a near miss. It could have been much more catastrophic."

More than 200,000 people live within three miles of the plant and, according to CBS, in documents filed with the Environmental Protection Agency, ExxonMobil itself estimated in a worst-case scenario release of hydrofluoric acid, all of them within that distance could be injured or even die.

Sutherland said ExxonMobil is now resisting the agency's subpoenas for information about the February explosion. "Generally my experience as a regulator and enforcer when somebody doesn't want you to have records is because they don't want you to see what's in it," she said.

A United Steel Workers study into half of the 50 US refineries using hydrofluoric acid found that 75% had near misses within the past three years and 50% of those would have impacted a community.
ExxonMobil said on September 30 it will sell the Torrance refinery to New Jersey-based PBF Energy.  This follows PBF's purchase earlier this year of the Chalmette, Louisiana, refinery which Exxon owned jointly with Petroleos de Venezuela. 

PBF said it would return the 155,000 bpd refinery to full production before the deal closes in the second quarter of 2016, the company said in a statement.The refinery has remained at reduced output rates since the February incident.

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