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CSB: Refinery Blast Was Preventable

Friday, January 15, 2016

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Several “process safety management deficiencies” led to a California refinery explosion that left four workers hurt and a city covered in ash, according to a recent report.

The federal Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released its preliminary findings Wednesday (Jan. 13) ahead of a public hearing that evening to discuss the Feb. 18, 2015, ExxonMobil Torrance Refinery blast.

“Although our investigation found two different process hazard analyses that considered a combustible mixture igniting in the electrostatic precipitator [ESP], no effective safeguards were implemented at the refinery to mitigate this threat,” said CSB’s Mark Wingard, who is in charge of the refinery investigation.

Agency Findings

In the report, the CSB said a series of events that started days before the actual explosion led to the hydrocarbons building up inside the refinery’s ESP. The resulting blast sprayed a one-mile area with catalyst dust.

Photos: CSB

A series of events that started days before the actual explosion led to the hydrocarbons building up inside the refinery’s ESP. The resulting blast sprayed a one-mile area with catalyst dust.

The CSB also said that debris from the explosion was thrown into other units of the refinery near the ESP. One of the pieces hit scaffolding in the refinery’s alkylation unit, which narrowly missed a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of modified hydrofluoric acid (HF). The federal agency said that had the debris struck the tank, the tank could have ruptured.

If that had occurred, there would have been a “potentially” catastrophic release of extremely toxic modified HF into the neighboring community.”

The agency noted that 333,000 Torrance residents, 71 schools and eight hospitals are within three miles of the refinery.

“Hydrofluoric acid can pose a severe hazard to the population and environment if a release occurs,” said Vanessa Allen Sutherland, the chairwoman of the CSB.

“After HF acid vaporizes it condenses into small droplets that form a dense low-lying cloud that will travel along the ground for several miles and can cause severe damage to the respiratory system, skin, and bones of those who are exposed, potentially resulting in death.”

Series of Events

According to the report, the events that led to the blast began on Feb. 12 when problems with an expander caused the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) unit to stop.

Steam was then forced into a reactor to prevent hydrocarbons from flowing back from the main distillation column, the agency said. On Feb. 18, the steam escaped through an open flange on the expander.

That escaping steam—which traveled through a leaking slide valve that was connected to the reactor—prevented operators at the refinery from continuing maintenance work. When that happened, a supervisor reduced the amount of steam being forced into the reactor so that work could continue.

Had ExxonMobil not used an outdated variance to the process safety management protocols to get the FCC back online, it would have found the problem, the agency said.

But, the agency said, workers didn’t know that hydrocarbons were leaking into the main distillation column from other equipment. As the steam pressure dropped, the hydrocarbons flowed back into the reactor, out through the leaking slide valve and into the ESP.

Inside the ESP, the hydrocarbons found something to ignite them. That caused the explosion, the agency said.

The agency also said that it could have been prevented. Had ExxonMobil not used an outdated variance to the process safety management protocols to get the FCC back online, it would have found the problem before the explosion occurred.

Furthermore, the CSB said the company has not been cooperative with the agency. Despite that, Sutherland said it is making progress on completing the ongoing investigation.

Company Response

But an ExxonMobil spokesman said the company has been working with their investigators. It also disagrees that the HF tank was ever in danger of rupturing.

“We have taken corrective actions to prevent this incident from happening again,” Todd Spitler told the Los Angeles Times. “ExxonMobil stands on its record of good faith compliance with all agencies, including the Chemical Safety Board, and we look forward to hearing their perspectives on the incident and reviewing the preliminary report.”

As previously reported, ExxonMobil has since sold the damaged refinery to New Jersey-based PBF Energy for $537.5 million. The sale is expected to close during the second quarter of this fiscal year.

Cal/OSHA, a state-run program carved out of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, also fined ExxonMobil $566,000 for 19 health and safety citations it found after the blast. PBF will not assume liability for those fines, earlier reports indicate.

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; Business matters; Ethics; Explosions; Government; Health and safety; North America; Oil and Gas; OSHA; Quality Control

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