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Latest fire at Californian refinery to cause air quality investigation

21 February 2017

A fire broke out at the Torrance refinery in southern California on February 18 causing local authorities to issue a "shelter in place" order, and 67 people complained of respiratory problems to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). The agency issued a Notice of Violation to the refinery for causing a public nuisance. No one was injured in the incident and firefighters extinguished the blaze after 30 minutes.

Stock image
Stock image

The huge refinery in southern Los Angeles was owned by ExxonMobil but sold it to a smaller company, PBF Energy of New Jersey, in September 2015.

The AQMD said the agency was "very disappointed" with repeated explosions and fires at Torrance, and announced plans for a hearing to investigate smog coming from a series of explosions at the gasoline refinery.

Many of the explosions and fires at the Torrance refinery have been consequences of electrical power outages, and the AQMD has ordered the company to improve electrical reliability.

The refinery is one of very few that use a component called an alkylization unit, which includes a tank holding substantial amounts of a modified hydrofluoric acid, or MHF.

An explosion two years ago hurled a heavy piece of metal towards the alkylization unit, and the US Chemical Safety Board said that if the metal had hit the tank, a toxic cloud with "the potential to cause serious injury or death to many community members" would spread across the South Bay and Long Beach areas.

Congressman Ted Lieu, D-Los Angeles, said it was unacceptable to have deadly MHF at “failing” refineries. “Congresswoman Maxine Waters and I requested the US Chemical Safety Board to investigate the explosion two years ago. They have not yet completed their final investigation and I will be asking (them) to include today's fire and explosion as part of their investigation."

AQMD chairman William A. Burke said that the frequent explosions and other problems at the refinery led to gas and petrochemical residue being flared, which caused unacceptable air pollution and was in violation of AQMD smog permits.

The AQMD said the refinery has flared gas after power outages on four occasions since the major 2015 event, and an outage on October 11 caused thick black smoke to cover the South Bay area for more than four hours.

"Residents have suffered too long from excess air pollution due to preventable flaring, not to mention fear of the next potential accident at the refinery," Burke said in a statement, which Fox News said was “unusual”.


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