South Bay Reps Press for Federal Fire Investigations

south bay refineries

South Bay Representatives Maxine Waters and Ted Lieu pressed federal safety regulators to investigate November’s fire at the PBF Energy-owned Torrence refinery and to provide a full ’cause and potential consequences’ probe.

They directed their request to Vanessa Allen Sutherland, chairwoman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in Washington D.C. In their letter, the two requested the probe to run concurrently with the current and ongoing investigations in a 2015 explosion at the same refinery. ExxonMobile owned the facility during that previous accident.

“As has been reported by the Torrance Fire Department and local media, the fire burned dangerously close to the alkylation unit of the refinery,” the South Bay representatives wrote. “This is especially alarming because the alkylation unit utilizes hydrofluoric acid, which is regulated as a highly toxic chemical with the potential to kill tens of thousands of people in the surrounding area if accidentally released.”

The November fire broke out at approximately 4:20 p.m on the east side of the plant while maintenance workers replaced a series of flare piping. It happened in or just outside the alkylation unit where the modified hydrofluoric acid gets used.

While Torrence firefighters were dispatched to the scene, refinery firefighters took majority control of the incident; dousing the flames with on-site water cannons as refinery operation personnel shut down the alkylation unit. They contained the flash fire and ultimately extinguished it within 90 minutes.

City Leaders Argue Whether Refinery Incidents are Cause for Concern

Torrance City Manager LeRoy Jackson downplayed the incident. A move seemingly in direct contrast to the two South Bay representatives who requested further information about the situation.

“It was a small fire in the refinery that happened to get on the news,” Jackson said. “Fires happen (at the refinery) from time to time when they’re making changes or modifications to an area.”

Yet, Rep. Maxine Waters emphasized in a November statement the increasing amount of incidents at the facility. “Torrence Refinery has a long history of safety problems, including fires, explosions, leaks and flaring incidents.”

The South Coast Air Quality Management District appears to have sided with Waters and colleague Lieu on the matter. This January, they announced plans to pursue a ban against the hydrofluoric acid utilized at the refinery. If instituted, the toxic compound could be phased out as early as 2020.