In February, a large explosion occurred at ExxonMobil’s refinery in Torrance, California. The explosion filled surrounding neighborhoods with ash, fiberglass, and glass wool. The explosion was so severe that it caused residents in the area to experience a shock similar to the effects of a 1.7 magnitude earthquake. Numerous nearby residents complained about the air quality following the blast. Fortunately, the explosion did not release asbestos, but the material released contained fiberglass and glass wool which can cause respiratory issues.
Inside the refinery, the explosion blew off parts of an electrostatic precipitator and damaged other equipment at the plant. Four contractors at the plant suffered injuries and required medical treatment and eight workers had to be decontaminated.
The cause of the accident was not immediately known, but it was believed to be caused by over pressurization in the plant’s electrostatic precipitators. Electrostatic precipitators are large machines that stand 12 stories high and weigh more than 1,000 tons. The machines are responsible for reducing ammonia and particulate emissions in a plant to comply with environmental regulations.
The Investigation into the Deadly Refinery Explosion
Following the explosion, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health shut down the part of the refinery where the accident occurred. Officials were investigating the cause of the over-pressurization. Cal/OSHA has shut down the fluid catalytic cracker and will only allow operations to resume once it can be exhibited that the unit can operate safely.
Some community members do not believe that the company did not enough to respond to the emergency. More than a day after the accident, no representative from ExxonMobil had directly contacted the Torrance fire chief and city officials still did not know what was in the substances that were released into the surrounding areas.
There were also questions asking why the emergency refinery sirens did not sound following the accident. The refinery previously said that the city’s Fire Department has the “sole responsibility to decide what tools to use, when to use them, and what area within the community to notify.” At the bottom of a public notice explaining the Torrance Community Warning System, however, “ExxonMobil has the ability to initiate the use of the Community Alert Sirens and Crenshaw Street Barriers if an incident at the refinery warrants immediate community notification.”
The Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee and the Environmental Quality Committee has planned a joint hearing to address the emergency response in the Torrance refinery explosion. The issues to be discussed include “A decision not to use the ExxonMobil emergency siren to alert the community to the explosion and subsequent ash and dust fallout.”
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