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US Chemical Safety Board Finds Inadequate Safety Standards and Outdated Equipment Caused ExxonMobil Refinery Explosion in Torrance, California

Over 2 years after the catastrophic explosion, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) concluded that the February 18, 2015 explosion at ExxonMobil Corp’s refinery in Torrance, California was the result of numerous deficiencies in the refinery’s safety program.

The explosion, which severely injured four workers and released toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, occurred when flammable hydrocarbons flowed into a device known as an electrostatic precipitator. Electrostatic precipitators produce sparks, and, when the flammable hydrocarbons contacted the spark, it created a blast as strong as a 1.5 magnitude earthquake.

The explosion, however, could have been much worse. The blast threw a 40-ton piece of equipment into the air, which almost landed on a unit storing thousands of pounds of hydrofluoric acid. Had this dangerous acid been released, it could have caused severe injuries to every resident in the surrounding area.

The CSB concluded that the explosion was preventable and would never have happened had ExxonMobil implemented a “robust safety management program.” Some of the safety deficiencies identified in the CBS’s report include:

  • a faulty valve that failed to keep flammable hydrocarbons from coming into contact with sparks
  • plant managers used “unreliable and unsafe isolation methods” on equipment
  • the refinery was relying on procedures from a 2012 maintenance operation without performing an updated hazard analysis to determine if the equipment was being used beyond its “predicted safe operating” life

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