LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A Los Angeles judge Monday rebuffed an effort by an environmental group to delay the planned restart of the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance that was damaged by an explosion more an a year ago.
Members of the Refinery Safety Network filed a lawsuit in hopes of keeping the refinery offline, despite a vote in support of the move by a South Coast Air Quality Management District hearing board. The group contended that restarting the facility without pollution-control systems in operation would violate state environmental laws.
There’s no word from ExxonMobil on exactly when the company hopes to restart the refinery, which suffered extensive damage in an explosion on Feb. 18, 2015, and has been operating in a limited capacity ever since.
“We agree with the decision of the court,” according to an ExxonMobil statement. “We continue to work with the South Coast Air Quality Management District on the approved and stringent safety conditions for restart, so that the Torrance refinery can resume safe and environmentally responsible production of gasoline and other products for California.”
Under the re-start agreement approved by the AQMD hearing board, ExxonMobil must pay about $5 million in penalties for air pollution violations that resulted from the February 2015 blast. It must also follow a multi-step procedure aimed at minimizing emissions during the re-start procedure.
AQMD officials have said restarting the damaged facility will result in excessive emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, as a result of an altered start-up procedure “necessary to improve the safety of their operations.”
Agency documents indicate the refinery “is not currently in violation of district rules” or its operating permit, but the restart “is expected to result in a violation of district rules and the facility’s existing Title V permit conditions.”
ExxonMobil officials insisted, however, that the “stringent conditions associated with startup are designed to minimize the impact to the community and the environment. Our restart procedures have been thoroughly evaluated by the AQMD and are consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Refinery Sector Rule and other relevant regulations.”
Some residents near the refinery have criticized the start-up plan, saying no specifics have been provided about anticipated levels of pollution and claiming it was developed without any community input.
The refinery was sold to New Jersey-based oil refining company PBF Energy in September. The $527.5 million deal is expected to close in the second quarter of 2016.
The 750-acre refinery has a capacity of 155,000 barrels per day. With the purchase, PBF will increase its total capacity to about 900,000 barrels per day, according to the company.
Federal authorities blamed a breakdown in safety procedures for causing the 2015 explosion. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the trouble began six days before the blast when a problem developed with a piece of equipment known as an expander, forcing the plant’s “fluid catalytic cracking” unit to be shut down.
That shutdown led to steam being forced into a reactor, and some was leaking from an open flange that was preventing plant employees from carrying out repair work, the board found.
When a supervisor reduced the flow of steam, it caused hydrocarbons to flow into the plant’s electrostatic precipitator, where the hydrocarbons were ignited, causing the explosion.
According to the board, plant employees deviated from standard procedures while trying to repair the catalytic cracking unit, but they used an outdated “variance” that is required prior to moving ahead with the work.
Investigators noted that a similar situation led to a 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond.
State regulators issued 19 citations against ExxonMobil and proposed penalties totaling $566,600 in response to the explosion. Cal/OSHA officials said a 2007 safety review found problems with flammable vapor in the plant’s electrostatic precipitator, but no corrective actions were taken. Regulators noted that the plant’s fluid catalytic cracker had not been working properly for as long as nine years prior to the blast.
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