Chemical Safety Board Cites Safety Deficiencies in Torrance Refinery Explosion

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) recently released a portion of its investigative findings regarding a February 18, 2015, explosion that destroyed a significant portion of the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California, and sent a cloud of dust into the air that reached as far as one mile from the facility. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated incident; similar accidents have occurred across the United States in recent years. For Texas residents who have been injured in an industrial accident, consulting with a refinery explosion lawyer can provide expert guidance on how to achieve fair compensation for their claims. 

Anatomy of the Torrance Explosion

The CSB report indicates that the chain of events leading up to the ExxonMobil explosion in Torrance began when an expander malfunctioned on February 12, 2015, causing the fluid catalytic cracking unit to be taken offline. This change in operations caused steam to be redirected into a reactor to contain hydrocarbon flow within the facility. When the steam leaked into a maintenance area, however, a supervisor unaware of the safety issues reduced the pressure of the steam, allowing hydrocarbons to leak into the electrostatic precipitator, where these chemicals ignited and exploded. According to the CSB, the accident could have been much worse; debris from the explosion narrowly missed a tank in the alkylation unit filled with large amounts of hydrofluoric acid. The health effects of a large scale release of this toxic chemical could have been catastrophic for the surrounding community.

CSB Finds Multiple Safety Failures at ExxonMobil

According to CSB investigators, ExxonMobil failed to perform adequate process hazards analysis and reviews needed to ensure that the plant was operating safely after the fluid catalytic cracking unit was taken offline. A written variance is required when facilities do not adhere to normal operating procedures. ExxonMobil did implement a variance; however, it was outdated and did not reflect the current conditions present in the fluid catalytic cracking unit. Additionally, the risk assessments performed by ExxonMobil did not include any safeguards or plans intended to mitigate dangers associated with the buildup of hydrocarbons in the electrostatic precipitator despite evidence that the company was aware of these potential risks.

A Pattern of Lack of Cooperation

Investigations into the Torrance accident have been hampered by an apparent unwillingness on the part of ExxonMobil to provide information to the CSB regarding the safety procedures in place and the exact sequence of events that led up to the explosion on February 18. ExxonMobil has failed to provide complete responses to almost half of the subpoena requests submitted by the CSB.

A History of Similar Events

The petrochemical industry has been plagued by numerous accidents and industrial explosions in recent years:

  • The West Fertilizer Company industrial plant explosion on April 17, 2013, resulted in more than 160 injuries and 15 deaths. According to investigators, the explosion occurred after large quantities of ammonium nitrate ignited in a bin located inside a seed and fertilizer storage facility located on the company’s premises.
  • On August 6, 2012, a fire broke out at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California. According to the CSB, 19 workers were put in danger and more than 15,000 people living in the area were sent to the hospital for evaluation of their exposure to dangerous chemicals released in the blaze.

The root causes for these accidents can often be traced to a failure on the part of the energy industry to maintain compliance with federal and state regulations and to implement safety plans for their facilities. For those who have suffered losses or who have been injured in these industrial accidents, working with an attorney who specializes in refinery explosions and fires can be a good first step toward holding energy companies responsible for their failures in protecting the safety of workers and the general public. Retaining expert legal help can also ensure the highest possible settlement for injuries incurred in these serious and preventable accidents.