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US federal prosecutors sue ExxonMobil for more information on refinery explosion

08 May 2017

The US Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil seeking answers to questions raised by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) in its final report into the 2015 explosion at its Torrance oil refinery in Southern California. The CSB report, published on May 3, said Exxon had failed to respond adequately to a number of its requests for information.

Torrance refinery - Image: Torrance Refining Company
Torrance refinery - Image: Torrance Refining Company

The CSB issued seven administrative subpoenas to Exxon, from June to October 2015, seeking evidence for its investigation. Exxon officials did not fully comply with six of the requests, according to the petition. It refused to produce risk assessments for an alkylation unit, plus ad hoc assessments for a fluid catalytic cracking unit and carbon monoxide boiler. In all, it failed to provide 13 of the 55 document requests.

“The United States has attempted to secure Exxon’s compliance with the board’s subpoenas through reasonable, good-faith negotiations,” the petition states. “These negotiations included numerous letters, phone calls, and in-person meetings between the board and Exxon and Exxon’s counsel.”

According to local media outlet The Daily Breeze, the 34-page legal brief, filed in US District Court last week against former refinery owner ExxonMobil provides new details on a March 2015 fire and September 2015 hydrofluoric acid leak that occurred in the wake of the blast.

The February 2015 explosion and fire at the Torrance refinery destroyed part of the site, rocked the area with the force of a 1.7 magnitude earthquake, released flammable hydrocarbons, injured several workers and caused substantial property damage, the petition says.

The blast came in a fluid catalytic cracking unit after exhaust particulates unevenly accumulated on expander turbine blades. The imbalance caused the turbine to shut down. Flammable fuels in a main column then flowed into a reactor, regenerator and electrostatic precipitator, where they ignited.

The explosion catapulted a 40-ton piece of debris from the precipitator more than 100 feet to within 5 feet of a tank filled with thousands of gallons of modified hydrofluoric acid. If breached, the tank could have released a toxic cloud with the potential to kill and maim many in the neighbourhood.

Investigators are also seeking information on a release of modified hydrofluoric acid on September 6, 2015. The lawsuit says Exxon installed a clamp to patch an ageing pipe instead of replacing it, leading to a leak of over five pounds of the substance as a white vapour cloud over two hours.

The federal government is seeking photos and videos of the leak because it shows the risks posed by a release of modified hydrofluoric acid and how it behaves when released.

Regulators in 2016 approved Exxon’s request to restart the Torrance refinery, which was largely shut down after the explosion. This caused a spike in fuel prices across the state, given that it normally supplies 20% of the gasoline used in Southern California and 10% statewide.

PBF Energy, which is not involved in the suit, acquired the refinery from ExxonMobil last year.

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