ExxonMobil’s refinery in Torrance, which had been closed for over a year after an explosion that rained dust and polluted air over the surrounding area, restarted production early Tuesday morning without incident, according to company and government officials.
As part of the restart process that began at about 7 p.m. Monday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District allowed ExxonMobil a six-hour window to shut down a pollution-control system the company said it needed as a safety precaution.
As it turned out, the pollution-control system was shut down for only 2-1/2 hours, from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., said South Coast AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.
“At about 11:30 p.m. last night this pollution control device was turned back on and it will continue to operate as long as the refinery is operating,” Atwood said.
During the restart the AQMD had air pollution scientists watching air-quality monitors inside the refinery property and in the nearby neighborhoods, as well as in two vehicles driving throughout the surrounding area, Atwood said.
“During the shutdown we really didn’t come close to exceeding any health-based thresholds set by both the state and federal governments for fine particulate pollution,” Atwood said.
An AQMD hearing board in April set the requirements for the restart and said it would require ExxonMobil to pay about $5 million in penalties for air pollution violations resulting from the February 2015 blast.
ExxonMobil spokeswoman Gesuina Paras said in a statement issued Tuesday morning that the restart had been completed in compliance with the AQMD’s order.
“We can confirm the Torrance refinery completed the six-hour period per the terms of the South Coast Air Quality Management District Hearing Board Order for Abatement,'' Paras said. “We evaluate each phase of the restart sequence and continue to work with the South Coast Air Quality Management District on the stringent conditions outlined in the Order for Abatement.”
Atwood said AQMD officials will continue to monitor air quality around the refinery for at least another day, but the facility was otherwise returning to normal operations and the AQMD would return to its regular weekly inspections of the refinery's emissions.
“The other next step is to closely evaluate whether ExxonMobil was in full compliance with the order for abatement [of pollution during the restart],” Atwood said. “We didn’t observe any violations but we will make sure they were in compliance.”
Steve Goldsmith, a Torrance resident who lives near the refinery and who is a member of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, told KPCC's Take Two show that he and his wife did not trust the air quality during the restart and so they spent the night with a relative in Santa Monica.
Goldsmith said he and other neighbors continue to be concerned with the safety of the refinery, which he claimed is continuing to use a refining process involving hydrofluoric acid that is more dangerous than possible alternative methods.
"That ... refinery... they made some small changes in the structure—put in some automatic shut-offs and things like that—but basically they're using the same method, and they have kept the hydrofluoric acid in the process when they could have done a complete rebuild," Goldsmith said.
In response to such concerns, Atwood said, the AQMD has agreed to commission a study with a firm that has expertise in oil refineries to determine the safety of the ExxonMobil operations. Atwood said the study may be completed by the end of this year and at that time the AQMD will decide if further regulations are required for the refinery to ensure the safety of the surrounding area.
The refinery was sold to New Jersey-based oil refining company PBF Energy in September. The $527.5 million deal is expected to close soon. The 750-acre refinery has had a capacity of 155,000 barrels per day, but PBF has said it plans to increase capacity to about 900,000 barrels per
Federal authorities blamed a breakdown in safety procedures for causing the 2015 explosion. State regulators likewise issued 19 citations against ExxonMobil and penalties totaling $566,600.