ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson leaves a legacy of SoCal environmental mishaps
Much has been made of concerns over ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson's ties to Russian leadership as his nomination to secretary of state is evaluated. But to Southern Californians, the company legacy under Tillerson features serious environmental violations and mishaps, some of which are still under investigation.
The company sold the Torrance Refinery in July, so the ExxonMobil footprint is much smaller in Southern California than when when it was producing one-fifth of the region's gasoline.
Trump tweeted about Tillerson's international experience on Tuesday:
However, Tillerson and ExxonMobil's regulatory experience in Southern California might not be resume-worthy material.
Under Tillerson, the company paid millions of dollars in fines in recent years for the Torrance Refinery's repeated violations of air pollution and other regulations.
One of the most serious incidents was an explosion at the 650-acre refinery in February 2015 so powerful that it set off a 1.7-magnitude earthquake. The company knowingly operated unsafe equipment that caused the blast, which came perilously close to rupturing a tank of toxic chemicals, according to preliminary findings of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
An 80,000-pound metal intake duct blown off some air pollution equipment fell 100 feet, landing near two tanks of dangerous modified hydrofluoric acid, which, if released to the air, could create a toxic ground-hugging cloud capable of causing widespread injuries or death.
At a public meeting at the Torrance City Hall in January, Chemical Safety Board investigators said ExxonMobil ignored or gave incomplete answers to about half of the investigators' subpoenas. The U.S. Department of Justice is pursuing enforcement of the subpoenas and the inquiry remains open, according to spokespeople in the offices of Rep. Maxine Waters and Rep. Ted Lieu, who represent communities surrounding the Torrance refinery.
ExxonMobil did not consider the incident qualified as a near miss, and used that position as grounds to not comply with the subpoenas, said an investigator for the Chemical Safety Board. (See page 26 of the meeting transcript.)
In September 2015, Lieu and Waters wrote to Tillerson expressing dismay that the company was not cooperating with the federal investigation. The company was barring investigators from interviewing witnesses and not permitting them to visit parts of the refinery. Also, the company was appealing 19 worker safety violations issued by Cal/OSHA.
An ExxonMobil vice president replied, saying that the company had done its own investigation and shared it with government investigators. The company said it had voluntarily complied with 199 of 231 document requests from the Chemical Safety Board. In the same letter, the vice president said the refinery had been sold.
Read the letters between the members of Congress and ExxonMobil:
ExxonMobil spokesman Todd Spitler said in an email Monday that the company is cooperating with investigators in good faith. The company had shared 350,000 pages of company documents with the 19 local, state and federal agencies that responded to last year's refinery blast.
The AQMD fined ExxonMobil $5 million for the emissions violations stemming from the February 2015 explosion and the pollution resulting from the plant's restart. The money is to be used for community projects, including improving the city's emergency alert system.
The incident caused Cal/OSHA to issue more than $500,000 in fines for 19 violations of workplace safety standards — all but one of them considered serious violations. The company challenged the citations.
The explosion is only the latest of ExxonMobil's legacy of environmentally-troubled operations. The company was fined $8.1 million in 2014 over its failure to report about half the sulfur dioxide it was putting into the air. Sulfur dioxide is a major component of smog. The "unmetered emissions" continued for about five years. The refinery put out far more than the annual targeted amount of the pollutant permitted by the Air Quality Management District.
Lieu, who represents homes west of the Torrance Refinery, said Trump's nomination of Tillerson was disturbing. He urged members of the Senate to vote against confirming the executive.
He said ExxonMobil "knew the dangers of climate change, but engaged in a campaign of climate disinformation to protect its own bottom line."
The state Attorney General's Office announced it was following up on an investigation in the L.A. Times that the the company knew but had failed to tell its investors the risks posed to the business from global warming caused by fossil fuels. The SEC is also investigating the alleged misleading of investors.
Waters said she expected the Senate confirmation hearings to turn up conflicts that could keep Tillerson from the office.
"Exxon has done everything that it could to hide information that they have about climate change," Waters said. "They know the negative impact of Exxon and its operations on the climate and they have done everything they could not only to hide it, but to distort it."