ExxonMobil Ignores Subpoenas. What Are They Hiding?

It’s business as usual when it comes to refineries blocking investigations into accidents that touch off explosions and fires and that sometimes kill workers and bystanders. And now, ExxonMobil is refusing to respond to subpoenas from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
 
Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) last week wrote ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson that they were dismayed by the “push back” in response to investigations by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board into the February 2015 explosion at its Torrance refinery that supplies about 20 percent of the Southland’s gas.
 
“These actions undermine public trust in ExxonMobil and the safety of your Torrance refinery,” their letter said. Refineries push back against investigations all the time, brushing off the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in particular as an investigative body without the power to levy fines or penalties.
 
In 2014, Tesoro blocked an investigation by the Board into its Golden Eagle refinery near Martinez after a few workers and few contractors were splashed with sulfuric acid in two separate incidents involving the same processing unit. The refinery withheld some key documents despite subpoenas. 
 
Since when is it OK for refineries to refuse to respond to subpoenas? Since federal regulators take whatever they dish out lying down. 
 
On top of behavior like this, ExxonMobil is appealing 19 citations. All but one of these were classified as serious and issued by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health for threatening workers with the realistic possibility of injury and death at the Torrance refinery, for failing to take action to fix known hazardous conditions at the refinery, and intentionally failing to comply with state safety standards.
 
Oh, Exxon mouthed the words about cooperating with authorities after the February blast. It’s repeating those words even now. But it won’t give regulators documents concerning risk assessments on equipment involved in the explosion despite Cal OSHA’s finding that the blast was caused by a key piece of equipment that the company knew hadn't been working properly for at least nine years. Exxon had ignored the results of a safety review in 2007 that indicated concerns about leakage of flammable vapors.
 
At the same time, it’s asking California air regulators for an exemption to allow the Torrance refinery to start making gas again using old air pollution equipment that emits way more pollution.
 
What Hutzpah. 
 
In fact, Exxon led Californians down a $6 billion hole when its Torrance refinery blew up. 
 
Instead of taking their Fluid Catalytic Cracker offline to fix a compressor, as industry observer Bob van der Valk, senior editor of the Bakken Oil Business Journal explained at the time, they left it partially running. And boom, fumes built up in a line connected to a 12-story piece of air pollution equipment and exploded—taking out the refinery’s ability to make much gasoline. 
 
That kicked off the worst run up in California gas prices in recent history because California’s oil oligopoly raises prices across the board when one of their own goes down. Consumers wound up paying $6 billion more than Americans elsewhere did from February through September.
 
But ExxonMobil wouldn’t initially admit its ability to make gas was gravely damaged, and led analysts to believe it could reopen by July 1. So the industry stopped imports, figuring there would be enough supply when the refinery came back on line. No such luck. 
 
If ExxonMobil had been honest, it would have told the truth about its hobbled capacity to make gasoline, and about how long it would take to bring its state-of-the-art air pollution equipment back on line. Then, Californians wouldn’t have to keep paying around a dollar more for a gallon of gas than everybody else. 
 
Naturally, Exxon doesn’t want to provide regulators with evidence of its shoddy maintenance practices and “run-equipment-into-the-ground” mentality that risks lives for the sake of profits. 
 
Air regulators that must hear Exxon’s request to reopen at higher pollution emissions levels have to be concerned about its terrible safety record. Just last week, Exxon leaked highly toxic hydrofluoric acid used as a catalyst to boost octane, something that Lieu and Waters noted in their letter. That only serves to confirm ExxonMobil’s first priority isn't safety. 
 
But Exxon had the nerve to rebuff the Chemical Safety Board, writing that its requests for documents was “overbroad, unduly burdensome, and not reasonably related to the CSB’s investigation,” according to the letter members of Congress wrote to Exxon’s CEO. 
 
Well, Exxon’s conduct and the inability of any of its numerous regulators to force them to cough up documents, let alone to protect workers and communities, and to mete out serious penalties for negligence, is unduly burdensome. 
 
What refineries get away with is overly broad—in this case, at the very least ExxonMobil owes Californians $6 billion. And every single document demanded of Exxon is intimately related to proving the refinery endangers the public on a daily basis. Exxon should be compelled to give up documents requested under subpoena. 
 
Then maybe we’d have safe refineries and gas that costs what everyone else pays. A straight line goes from Exxon’s practices that endanger lives to that $6 billion it owes us. And it’s time for regulators to stop taking it lying down.

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