Exxon's Torrance Explosion Could Have Been A Catastrophe

When Exxon’s Torrance refinery exploded last February, it injured four workers and took down an air pollution filtration system twelve stories high. That hobbled a refinery feeding Southern California 20 percent of its gasoline, and exacerbated a gasoline price spike. Californians wound up paying $10 billion more for their gasoline than elsewhere in 2015 as refineries gouged and gorged on swollen refining profits.
 
But it could have been much worse. Remember when a Union Carbide pesticide plant exploded in 1984, touching off a toxic gas cloud that exposed half a million people and killed 25,000 people in Bhopal, India? 
 
Federal regulators said today that the fireball at the Exxon plant tossed an 80,000 pound piece of equipment within feet of a store of tens of thousands of pounds of modified hydrofluoric acid (HF). Used to make clean-burning gasoline, HF could have touched off a major, Bhopal-like disaster, threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the area.
 
 
At the very least, HF should go, and be substituted with sulfuric acid, which is safer. It would be even better if they substituted it with a new generation of far safer catalysts. Removing HF from the Torrance refinery should be a requirement of the refinery's pending sale. 
 
HF vaporizes into a dense cloud that hovers near land and can move anywhere from three to 25 miles. It can cause deep, severe burns to the eyes, skin, nose, throat and respiratory systems. Once it enters your body through a burn, it can extensively fry your insides. A big enough cloud can kill you. It’s federally regulated as a highly toxic chemical, but a majority of refineries are terrible at safety precautions or how to protect workers or the public during a release, according to the United Steelworkers Union
 
Roughly 50 oil refineries still use HF alkylation in the US. Each stores an average 212,000 pounds of the stuff. Only two refineries are left that use modified HF in California, and they are both right here in Los Angeles. One is Exxon Torrance. The other is Valero’s Wilmington refinery. All the other refineries in California now use sulfuric acid.
 
This is California. We think of ourselves as the most progressive state in America. Well then, let’s act like it. Major chemical companies have developed new, far safer catalysts. As a state, we should mandate that refineries in California all switch away from deadly chemicals that can hurt and kill people. We should do this especially when California does such a terrible job of regulating refineries, and virtually applies criminal sanctions to their negligence. 
 
So far, state regulators have proposed only a total of $566,600 in penalties for what the US Chemical Safety Board now says was an accident caused by poor maintenance and the failure of a key valve that would have detected the HF leak. 
 
Exxon is conveniently selling its Torrance refinery to PBF Energy. At the same time, it has tried to keep investigators away from the people on the ground who know the most about what really happened. The US Chemical Safety Board reports that Exxon has refused to provide federal investigators with almost half of the requested documents they have demanded, specifically those materials related to the acid. 
 
Exxon must be made to convert away from HF and to pay the $100 million that it is going to take to do that. Exxon must complete this work before the sale is finalized. Let the poster child for what appears to be negligence hand off a state-of-the-art refinery to a company that can become the poster child for best refinery practices in California. Then, the state can mandate that Valero and the rest of our refineries do the same. 

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