Climate

Health Concerns Mount After Refinery Explosion Coats California City With White Ash

CREDIT: NBC News/Screenshot

The aftermath of an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California.

The aftermath of an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California.

The aftermath of an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California.

CREDIT: NBC News/Screenshot

The white ash that rained on the city of Torrance, California after a refinery explosion on Wednesday has been deemed non-toxic by city officials, but some oil industry workers and community members are questioning that claim.

Members of the USW Local 675, the union which represents workers at ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery, believe that the ash contained chemicals that could be harmful to human health beyond general irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. The ash — something called “catalyst dust” — is made up from particles that come from a piece of refinery equipment called a fluid catalytic cracking unit, which converts crude oil to gasoline. The unit produces a fine, almost volcanic-looking ash, which is usually made up of aluminum oxide and smaller amounts of nickel and vanadium.

NBC News is reporting that the explosion occurred in an electrostatic precipitator next to the FCC unit, where workers were doing maintenance. The precipitator is a device that removes dust from flowing gas. The machine reportedly removes about 15 pounds of small particulate matter every hour, which is then transported offsite in closed trucks.

A spokesperson for ExxonMobil told ThinkProgress that it does not comment on the status of individual units, but acknowledged that the dust was a catalyst primarily composed of some metal oxides and amorphous silica. “The material is not expected to be hazardous to people or animals under the conditions it was released,” Exxon public affairs advisor Gesuina Paras said in an e-mail. “However, it may cause irritation to the skin, eyes, and throat.”

But USW Local 675 Secretary-Treasurer Dave Campbell is urging public health officials to take a closer look. His branch is one that is participating in unprecedented nationwide strike over dangerous conditions and worker safety through its workers at the Tesoro refinery in Carson, California. Workers at the Torrance refinery were not striking.

“Spent catalyst is a substance that is powdery, and it has in it toxic things like vanadium, arsenic, heavy metals that are carcinogens,” he said. “While this material is toxic, the toxicity and its effect on the body is a function of the level and frequency of exposure — so a little bit won’t be so bad, but we need to know.”

Any type of small particle inhalation is harmful to human health. If the particle is small enough to be inhaled through the nose, it can trigger respiratory or cardiovascular problems. Exposure to amorphous silica, which Exxon said the dust was composed of, is associated with an increased risk for inflammation and emphysema.

Campbell says he and other union members have asked community members not to touch the dust with their hands, to use gloves when cleaning their properties, and to try and avoid inhaling it until the exact components of the white ash are. He said they are gathering samples of the dust to submit it for a chemical analysis. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is also conducting an analysis of the material, according to the Whittier Daily News.

“If this were a one-time, short-term exposure to the community, there is no need for them to be too concerned about it,” he said. “But if it is toxic and not cleaned up, I have concerns about long term possible exposure and the health of this community.”

A representative for Torrance’s Emergency Services Department did not immediately respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on the status of cleanup operations. Torrance’s sanitation services manager Matthew Knapp told the Whittier Daily News on Thursday that he was waiting for more information about the white dust, but noted that street sweepers were in effect.

The ambiguity surrounding what’s in the dust has been concerning for locals as well. It’s still not known how much of the catalyst was released during the explosion, nor is it known exactly what it contains. Torrance resident Patricia Mock told the paper that she still feared the white dust could dangerous. “They keep saying it was nothing toxic and, hopefully, that’s true,” she said.

Ironically enough, it’s been shown that this type of ambiguity can contribute to negative health impacts. Scientists who research the impacts of environmental incidents on human health have found that uncertainty surrounding the cause and content of refinery explosions can lead to “psychological distress for exposed populations because of fear of potential health problems, the uncertainty of the threat, lack of control, actions of others perceived to cause the threat or reacting against it, and stigmatization.”

“[C]oping may not be sufficiently effective, and stress-induced disease may eventually arise,” a study published on refinery explosions in the journal Risk Analysis reads.

Beyond the risk the dust may pose to Torrance, the explosion and its potential health impacts are fueling the fight of the 5,000 striking oil workers nationwide who say they’re unfairly risking their lives to do their jobs with little benefit. Among the workers’ complaints are unsafe staffing levels, bad training, absentee management, and “flagrant contracting” that they say are contributing to dangerous conditions.

The fact that dangerous conditions have presented potential hazards to environmental and public health are attracting allies from beyond the union. The labor unions and grassroots organizations supporting the strike claim that the Torrance explosion is the latest in a series of worrying industrial accidents at fossil fuel refineries. Other explosions resulting in deaths and serious injuries at refineries in Washington and Richmond, California are commonly referred to as the beginning of this latest round of grievances.

Those aren’t just problems for workers, said Brooke Anderson, a Bay Area environmental justice organizer for Movement Generation who is supporting the strike.

“We on the outside see this [strike] as critical for health and safety, for stopping leaks and accidents,” she said. “Their struggle is our struggle.”