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Authorities approve restart of ExxonMobil refinery in California

04 April 2016

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) board has authorised a restart of the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance near Los Angeles that was shut after a February 2015 explosion that damaged part of the plant. The board’s final vote, after many hours of public testimony, was three to two in favour.

Stock image
Stock image

The agreement requires ExxonMobil to pay about $5 million in penalties for air pollution violations that resulted from the 2015 blast and must also follow a multi-step procedure aimed at minimising emissions during the re-start procedure. A company spokeswoman said the process was 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.”

ExxonMobil officials said the company “has been working cooperatively with AQMD 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 US Environmental Protection Agency‘s Refinery Sector Rule and other relevant regulations.”

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 US 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.

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 vapour 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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