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Torrance refinery sees flareup after brief power outage

The Torrance refinery saw a flareup Wednesday following a brief outage.
screengrab from NBC4
The Torrance refinery saw a flareup Wednesday following a brief outage.

If you saw flames blasting skyward in Torrance Wednesday night, you're not alone.

ExxonMobil said a power outage at its Torrance refinery caused an unplanned flareup starting at about 6:15 p.m. 

A company spokesman told KPCC in an emailed statement this morning that power has been restored.

Refineries use flaring as a safety measure to destroy hydrocarbons that otherwise would not be processed when operations are disrupted, the company said.

The ExxonMobil plant went offline a year ago following an explosion that injured four people and dusted nearby homes and cars with ash.

Following the Feb. 18, 2015 explosion at the refinery, Torrance residents complained the company's notification process failed to provide them with enough information about the incident or what actions they should take in an emergency.

The city and Torrance Unified School District receive notices of flaring or other incidents, but community members want more extensive notifications, said Sherry Lear, who practices real estate law in Torrance.

"There's no notification system at all for private schools, daycare centers, for hospitals, elderly homes or anything like that," Lear said. Her son attends 7th grade at a Torrance school.

When working at full capacity, the Exxon Mobile refinery produces about 155,000 barrels of gasoline per day, about ten percent of California's gasoline supply. The refinery had been operating at about one-fifth its capacity after the explosion.

The explosion damaged a piece of equipment called an electrostatic precipitator, or ESP, which is an emission control device that removes fine particles from exhaust gas. The company has been trying to get permission from the South Coast Air Quality Management District hearing board to bring the plant on line in a way that would violate its air pollution limits.

The company is asking permission to fire up the plant before the pollution control unit that was rebuilt is powered up, a process that would result in more emissions than if the pollution controls were fully operating.

A March 19 hearing with the South Coast Air Quality Management District hearing board on the restart has been postponed until April 2, said district spokesman Sam Atwood.

An investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found several safety shortcomings at the refinery that led to the explosion. The board is an independent federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents.

The report said that over several days, hydrocarbons built up in the ESP tower unit and it exploded. A shard of metal nearly pierced a tank holding a large quantity of modified hydrofluoric acid, which, if it had been released, could have been toxic to workers and nearby residents, the safety board report said. The safety board report said Exxon Mobil did not fully cooperate with its investigation. The company also failed to perform the kind of safety analysis of its processes that could have prevented the explosion, the report said.

The company sold the refinery in September, but as the Associated Press has reported, ongoing repairs have delayed the deal.

The buyer, PBF Energy, said earlier this month that the deal could close by May, according to Argus Media.

ExxonMobil meanwhile said it was working on a comprehensive plan to restart the refinery but could not speculate on any specific timeline.

ExxonMobil said it did not expect Wednesday's flareup to impact operations moving forward.

The Exxon-Mobil refinery is vast — about 750 acres of tanks and refining equipment. It sits between Del Amo Blvd and 190th Street east of the railroad tracks and west of Van Ness Ave. Crenshaw Blvd. actually runs right through the middle of the refinery.

This story has been updated.