Refinery Explosion Nets $566K in Fines


The group that oversees workplace safety in California has issued 19 citations to ExxonMobil and fined it more than $500,000 for a refinery explosion earlier this year.

Cal/OSHA said 18 of the citations it issued on Aug. 13 for the Feb. 18 Torrance Refinery were for serious violations, and six of those were considered willful. The safety group—which is one of several state-run programs carved out of the Occupational Safety and Hazard Act of 1970—said the company did not eliminate known hazards and intentionally failed to comply with state safety regulations.

“Petroleum refineries have the responsibility to keep workers safe, and to also protect nearby communities and the environment,” said Christine Baker, Director of the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR), in an Aug. 14 statement. “This investigation revealed severe lapses in Exxon’s safety protocols.”

The Explosion

On Feb. 18, hydrocarbon release from the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracker (FCC) released into its electrostatic precipitator (ESP), which caused an explosion. Four workers were sent to the hospital with minor injuries and eight had to be decontaminated. No one was killed in the blast.

However, according to, the blast “shook the city (of Torrance, CA), spewed debris and chemicals into the air and covered large portions of Torrance with a suspicious ash.”

Because of the Torrance blast and the Aug. 6, 2012, Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, CA, the state has proposed improvements in petroleum refinery regulations, Cal/OSHA said. Those include damage mechanism reviews, employee participation, safeguard protection analysis and hazard control analysis.

“Cal/OSHA is working closely with other members of the Governor’s Interagency Refinery Task Force toward more protective refinery safety regulations,” said Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum, referring to the 13-agency and department task force formed in the aftermath of the Chevron fire.

Noted Problems

But that could mean little in the Torrance explosion. During its investigation, Cal/OSHA determined the following key points about the blast before issuing $566,600 in fines:

  • The agency had already discovered flammable vapor leakage in the ESP as early as 2007, and management at the company knew about it;
  • ExxonMobil management also knew there was a leaking spent slide valve on the FCC, but did nothing to correct it;
  • The FCC valve itself had not been working correctly for as long as nine years prior to the accident, and because the FCC didn’t have a functional pressure transmitter, the company could not monitor the hydrocarbon buildup; and
  • ExxonMobil didn’t have any way to test the FCC in a state between startup and shutdown.

In its statement, Cal/OSHA also said it had visited the Torrance refinery twice in the past five years for accident-related reports. That included a March 29, 2011, serious accident when a refinery operator who was working on the FCC unit attempted to shut down a failed pump.

That pump failed, and the worker suffered a broken jaw, the agency says.

Another accident in September 2011 was not on the FCC unit. But between the two, Cal/OSHA issued three serious and five general citations.

Prices Up, Output Down

According to ALLGov, gas prices rose between 6 cents and 10 cents per gallon directly after the Torrance explosion, and the facility has been working on limited capacity since.

However, the watch group site also said the company has submitted paperwork to the South Coast Air Quality Management District to use an older FCC than the one that was destroyed in the blast.

But that could be problematic, it says, because the older equipment could release more emissions. Because of that, the group wants Torrance to limit production to 65,000 barrels a day as opposed to the 155,000 barrels per day the refinery used to produce before the February explosion.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has 15 day to appeal the citations. A call to Cal/OSHA to determine if the company had filed for that appeal was not returned immediately.


Tagged categories: Air quality; Explosions; Fire; Health & Safety; North America; Oil and Gas; OSHA; OSHA

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