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

NBC News/Screenshot

The ExxonMobil Explosion That Nobody Is Talking About

TORRANCE, CALIFORNIA — Just before 9 a.m. on February 18, the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California exploded, shaking the surrounding community with the force of a 1.7 magnitude earthquake, and sending a quarter ton of sulfur oxide gas into the atmosphere. With the capacity to refine more than 150,000 barrels of gasoline a day, the facility supplies nearly 10 percent of the state’s gasoline supply, and its reduced capacity increased the cost of filling up a tank of gas in California by 6 to 10 cents per gallon.

Workers inside the refinery likened the incident to a “loud sonic boom,” and soon roughly 50 firefighters were battling a three-alarm fire. First responders initially feared the possibility of radioactive materials at the scene, though that concern was ruled out some three hours after the initial explosion.

“When you walk through that gate, you don’t know what’s gonna happen,” one unidentified worker told NBC News in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. “You don’t know if you’re gonna come back out alive; you don’t know if you’re gonna come back out with a limb missing.”

Outside the refinery, a chemical ash rained down on the community for the rest of the day, steadily falling on playgrounds, cars, and backyard gardens. The ash was ejected at such a violent rate that, less than 2 miles southwest of the facility, it blanketed the mobile home park owned by Brad Commiso.

“My property is about 2 and 1/4 acres in size,” Commiso told ThinkProgress, “and 100 percent of it, I mean every square millimeter, was covered in the fallout. My first thought was that it was ash from a fire. I quickly figured out that it wasn’t that, though; it had metallic fiberglass sheen to it. It had weight.”

Commiso quickly drove to the nearest fire station, knocking on the door and asking the officers who answered for an explanation behind the fallout and how to deal with its cleanup.

“They told me that they’d been instructed to send me to ExxonMobil,” said Commiso. “They told me that Exxon would tell me how to clean my property.”

Unsatisfied with this answer, Commiso left his phone number and demanded that a more senior officer contact him.

“At about 11:30 that morning, an officer called and said ‘I talked to them; it’s okay, just wash it away.’ And no tests were done at 11:30 in the morning,” Commiso said. “A shelter in place was still active, but the fire department was telling me I could wash it down the storm drain.”

Michelle Kinman’s home sits almost 3 miles southwest of the refinery, and it, too, received a considerable dusting of chemical fallout on the day of the explosion. “My husband came in from outside at about 9 a.m.,” she remembered, “and he had it on his head and shoulders. Our patio was sprinkled with it; I can remember the contrast between the color of the ash and the color of the patio furniture. We didn’t touch it that day, and no one from the city or Exxon reached out to me to tell me how to handle it or clean it up. It rained twice in the weeks after, which is what eventually washed it away.”

Local and state agencies have so far concluded that the fallout was non-toxic. But with a federal investigation ongoing and many questions unanswered, residents in Torrance are still upset nearly two months after the accident, with what they see as a series of lapses in governmental response. Many Torrance citizens feel as though they don’t fully comprehend what, exactly, transpired on February 18, nor how it might still be impacting their health.

“It feels as though the people in charge, both the government and the refinery, are looking out more for their PR than anything else,” says Jennifer Richards, the director and co-founder of Children’s Montessori School, which also sits roughly 2 miles south of the refinery and suffered the same chemical fallout. “This doesn’t feel like a situation where they are genuinely concerned about the well being of the community.”

The explosion was the latest in a string of accidents in and around the ExxonMobil refinery. It was also the third of its kind at a United States refinery so far this year, setting a pace that, according to Congressman Ted Lieu, is three to four times higher than in Europe, revealing, “not just a local problem and not just a state problem, [but] also a national problem.”

In the accident’s aftermath, California state senators held public hearings on emergency coordination and the explosion’s effects on gas prices, and Rep. Lieu joined with Rep. Maxine Waters to successfully petition the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to launch a federal investigation on safety conditions in the refinery.

In the preliminary opinions of some experts and observers, the mistakes made in the aftermath of the refinery’s explosion are modest yet numerous, reflecting an imperfect reaction to a dangerous scenario with potentially wide-ranging health and safety implications.

“While its true California often does better than most regarding environmental protections, we still fail miserably in several respects,” lamented Julia May, senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment (CBE). “Regulators often take the word of the oil industry that substances blown over the community during explosions pose no hazards, and consequently they fail to give people fair warning about how to protect themselves, or how to prevent the same thing happening again. This is entirely preventable.”

Unknown Toxicity

Two days after the explosion, ExxonMobil hosted a town hall meeting for concerned Torrance residents. According to May, the information offered that day woefully undersold the chemical composition of the fallout.

“There should have been a more concerted effort to provide a more detailed evaluation by health experts regarding the overall risk from exposure to the ash,” she told ThinkProgress. “Rather than being told during the town hall meeting by ExxonMobil that the material was similar to dust that you find at home.”

Roughly 33 minutes into the meeting, a staff physician for the refinery fielded one of the evening’s countless questions on the chemical composition of the fallout. Mid-sentence, she is interrupted by an angry gentleman in the back of the room.

“Are there any rare earth elements… that’s what we’re asking,” he demanded. “Do you have any lanthanum? Do you have any other chemicals to increase the capacity of your catalyst? Because if it’s just aluminum and silicon, I can live with that. But if you’re adding [other rare earth elements] to that, it massively increases the toxicity, and we wanna know about it.”

“This is spent catalyst,” responded the physician, in a slightly exasperated tone, “It contains aluminum oxide, it contains amorphous silica, and it contains kaolin. That’s what FCC spent catalyst contains.”

But in the samples taken by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), aluminum, lanthanum, and cerium were each discovered to exist at excessive levels. According to Lenntech, a company that provides water and air purification systems for industrial facilities worldwide, these three elements can cause a host of health problems when people are exposed to them over prolonged periods.

The work done that day by SCAQMD offers the best public record of the fallout’s chemical composition. As outlined in Governor Jerry Brown’s Interagency Working Group on Refinery Safety, SCAQMD is the local agency responsible for monitoring and regulating air pollution. If arsenic or asbestos is suddenly spilled into the surrounding environment, it’s within their specific purview to identify it. SCAQMD is thus a critical actor in the aftermath of this sort of industrial accident; their work provides the bedrock information that other agencies, such as the fire department and county Hazmat teams, use to make larger decisions on public health threats and appropriate cleanup procedures.

The SCAQMD report on this makes a curious decision to benchmark their chemical findings against the mean concentrations of those same elements found in average U.S. soil samples. However, these powdered metals fell from the air, making it much easier for them to be carried by the wind, swept into sewers, and breathed into lungs. Regardless of that fact, according to SCAQMD, the level of aluminum found in the fallout was 245 percent above its norm, while the mean lanthanum and cerium readings were 32,667 percent and 8,277 percent of their respective benchmarks. Nothing in the report highlights or explains these findings. The conclusion that the accident didn’t significantly impact the city’s health is offered in spite of them.

For their part, SCAQMD admits that they aren’t completely sure how these metals might impact the community at large. “We just don’t have an adequate body of scientific information to say if they’re not toxic,” said Sam Atwood, media relations manager for the agency.

This admission has much do with the fact that, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, there are roughly 100,000 synthetic chemicals on the marketplace today, only a small fraction of which have ever been fully studied for their impacts on the human body. “Maybe 5 percent of these chemicals have been documented for their health consequences,” said Jonathan Borak, a clinical professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at the Yale School of Public Health.

“On lanthanum and cerium, especially, there is probably very little information because these are very rare metals,” explained Elizabeth Wattenberg, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “We might not be able to address the question of health impacts because we might not know the answer. Inhalation toxicity is difficult to consider; it’s an engineering problem. In order to understand it, you’d have to design a chamber, make and monitor the aerosol output and how it’s breathed. Getting an even distribution of metals in the air would be difficult and expensive, so you’d have to be very, very interested in these questions. If we were all exposed to this all the time, the government would do it, but we aren’t so we just don’t know.”

“There should have been a more concerted effort to provide a more detailed evaluation by health experts regarding the overall risk from exposure to the ash,” May, the scientist at Communities for a Better Environment, told ThinkProgress. “Rather than being told during the town hall meeting by ExxonMobil that the material was similar to dust that you find at home.”

Delayed Response

The most concise timeline for the public response to the explosion is also found in the SCAQMD report.

On the day of the accident, SCAQMD reports that their monitoring staff, “arrived on scene … within an hour and a half of the incident, however, measurements did not proceed immediately upon arrival due to safety precautions related to reports about the potential release of radioactive materials at the scene. When confirmed that the radiation concern was indeed unfounded shortly before noon, near real time monitoring around the refinery began immediately.”

This three-hour lag time between the accident and the initiation of air monitoring presents two significant problems. The first is that SCAQMD was unable to perform their labor when the fallout was at peak concentration.

“With this type of explosion, you’d be most concerned with inhalation and possible skin exposure within the first few hours following the explosion,” explained Elizabeth Wattenberg, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the results SCAQMD eventually published do not fully reflect the chemical concentrations that blanketed Commiso’s home and the Children’s Place Elementary School.

While experts such as Wattenberg do believe that the agency acted responsibly, both in heeding the initial warnings of possible radioactive material and also eventually executing their prescribed duties according to the methodology laid out in their final report, the three-hour gap reflects yet another problem. If the threat of radioactivity was serious enough to keep an integral government agency from doing its job at the most opportune moment, why wasn’t the community at large similarly alerted?

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, Exxon managers, in conjunction with the Torrance fire department, made a conscious choice not to sound the refinery alarm meant for public alert. The Torrance fire department declined ThinkProgress’ request to talk to the officer in charge that day, advising instead that Exxon would provide greater insight into the decision. For their part, Exxon simply stated that, “a joint command decision was made to not activate community warning systems due to the nature of the material released. The warning sirens are activated when the unified command determines there is a health risk to the community; in this incident it was determined that the material did not present such a risk.”

As the SCAQMD was unable to begin working until later in the day, the immediate decision on the public health risk was based off the Material Data Safety Sheet (MSDS) for the exploded part. This document is provided by the manufacturer of industrial products, and contains information on their potential hazards. It is an essential starting point for the development of a complete health and safety program, and the MSDS sheet for this particular part contains explicit instructions not to “touch or walk through spilled material,” to “avoid contact with skin,” and to “prevent entry into waterways, sewers, basements or confined areas.” These warnings were either not extended to the public, or were done on an imperfect basis.

At a state senate hearing two weeks after the accident, Dave Campbell, secretary for the local chapter of the United Steelworkers, testified that, “Spent FCC catalyst dust for us… can be toxic and hazardous. In fact, we are required by companies such as ExxonMobil to wear personal protective equipment when we are even sweeping up a spill.”

In the case of the city’s schools, the fire department did work quickly with the local superintendent to notify the teachers and children that were immediately downwind of the refinery. According to public testimony offered by Donald Stabler, the deputy superintendent for administrative services for the Torrance Unified School District (TUSD), the fire department notified his office of the explosion and fire at precisely 8:52 a.m. A “soft shelter in place” was issued for schools downwind of the refinery to the north and west, allowing some movement inside the buildings while forbidding anyone to wander outside.

At 10:03 a.m., the remaining public schools in central and southern Torrance were also told to shelter in place, though this order was lifted 16 minutes later at 10:19. Finally, at 11:39 a.m., the original warning for the schools in the north and west of the city was also lifted.

Per Deputy Superintendent Stabler’s testimony, there were two main concerns in the event’s aftermath. Although individual principles were notified via calls, texts, and emails, the new district shortwave radios that had been implemented specifically for these sorts of scenarios failed in certain sites. “The other [problem] had to do with ExxonMobil’s emergency notification via emergency warning system that we have in our offices,” remarked Stabler. “For some reason, that did not go off that day.”

ExxonMobil declined to elaborate on the decision not to activate the warning system referenced by Stabler. “As a matter of practice, we do not comment on third party comment or speculation,” replied the company when pressed for comment on this specific decision.

Damage caused by an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery.

Damage caused by an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut

At first blush, Stabler’s accounting of the day’s events conveys a sense that adequate protections for schools were put in place. However, little explanation has been offered for the decision to delay, by more than an hour, the shelter in place for schools south of the refinery. Although they were upwind of the explosion, they, too, experienced chemical fallout of a then-undetermined composition, which Exxon’s own documents stress should not come into contact with human skin.

“For a while, we had no idea that anything had happened at all,” says Jennifer Richards about the morning’s events. “By chance, we’d brought our kids in at 8:30 that morning, but they’re usually out there longer than that. We had a teacher come in at 9:30 and tell us that it was snowing ash. That was the first we’d heard of it.”

When the notification to shelter in place came, it arrived in the form of a robo-call, and wasn’t actually lifted for Children’s Place Elementary until 7 p.m., long after faculty decided on their own to end the school day.

“I sure wish we’d found out sooner,” sighs Richards. “Because of the late notification, I don’t feel confident that we got the whole story. None of our families have reported any health problems since that day, but that feels like more a function of luck than anything else.”

Worker Safety

The Exxon refinery explosion occurred in the midst of the largest oil refinery workers strike since 1980. For most of February and part of March, some 5,200 workers from 11 plants, including nine refineries accounting for 13 percent of U.S. capacity, refused to work, primarily due to what they saw as unsafe conditions.

“This work stoppage is about onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it,” United Steel Workers International Vice President Gary Beevers said at the time.

While the unionized Exxon employees at the Torrance refinery never went on strike, their facility has a substantial history of accidents, putting it in the crosshairs of state and federal regulators. In 1987, a detonation of hydrofluoric acid sent a fireball 1,500 feet into the air, while injuring 10 and causing $17 million in damage. In 1994, an onsite gas explosion injured 20 people. A 2010 report issued by ExxonMobil on the refinery’s environmental and social programs claims that facility’s primary role is, “to safely provide reliable and affordable supplies of energy to Southern California and do so in an economically, environmentally and socially responsible manner. In the past 10 years, the Torrance Refinery has made enormous strides in our environmental performance.” However, as Liza Tucker of the website Consumer Watchdog notes, ExxonMobil “has paid more than $15 million in fines for violations of state and federal air standards at its Torrance refinery and terminals since 2005.”

According to Campbell, the local United Steelworkers representative, this particular accident could have been much worse. “The truth of the matter,” he told ThinkProgress, “is that the only reason workers weren’t killed that day is because they were out on a coffee break.”

The Chemical Safety Board’s investigation into the causes of the accident is ongoing; their preliminary findings won’t be ready for another few months. The organization’s work on the 2012 Chevron Refinery explosion in Richmond, California is widely cited by the activist community as a model for tracing the root causes and fallout from these sorts of incidents. CSB told ThinkProgress that their focus will be on the refinery’s safety as a whole, and what protocols are in place to prevent and contain accidents. Of particular interest to them, however, is the geographic location of this specific mishap.

“Our chairman and our board have said, over and over, that California has really become a model for our refinery systems,” said Hillary Cohen of CSB, by way of explaining part of the rational for her agency’s decision to investigate the incident. “The rest of the country looks to California for safety regulations in plants in general, and we believe that changes in California could affect refinery safety reform throughout the country.”

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