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ExxonMobil Still Polluting! Refinery Safety Network Files Suit Against SoCal Air Quality District


THIS IS WHAT I KNOW--Few film buffs can forget Howard Beale’s rant in Network (1976.) – “Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad! You’ve got to say, I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” 


Thirty years later, Beale’s speech seems to be a mantra of activist groups throughout LA. The latest is a lawsuit filed on Wednesday by the Refinery Safety Network against the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The suit, filed in Superior Court, names ExxonMobil Oil Corp. as a respondent-real party in interest. 

The nonprofit charges that the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance emits 50 tons of hydrogen cyanide in Los Angeles each year -- and the SCAQMD must take the reins to stop the emissions. The territory SCAQMD regulates is among the most polluted in all of the U.S., including all of Orange County, urban Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. 

Earlier this month, the SCAQMD Hearing Board, a co-defendant in the suit, issued an abatement order that permits ExxonMobil to operate a fluid catalytic cracking unit at the Torrance refinery without air pollution control devices, violating multiple district rules, the state health and safety code, and the California Environmental Quality Act, according the network. 

According to Refinery Safety, the abatement order would allow excess emissions of hydrogen cyanide, “an extremely toxic pollutant used in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.”

Built in 1929, the 750-acre refinery employs 650 workers and 550 contractors, processing 155,000 barrels of crude oil each day, producing 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline annually – but not without some cost. 

“The abatement order allows the violation of 11 district rules, one district administrative condition, and California Health & Safety Code section 41701, allowing excess emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter of less than 10 microns in diameter, and carbon monoxide,” charges the 13-page complaint. 

Cara Petrat, a Refinery Safety Network member, submitted a notice of health risks to the board prepared by non-party Mothers of the South Bay but the board refused to address the concerns through the Environmental Quality Act review. 

In 2015, an explosion in the refinery’s electrostatic precipitator, which controls air pollution, deposited catalyst ash miles from the refinery and injured two workers. ExxonMobil has since restarted the refinery operations. 

According to the lawsuit, “During the restart of the refinery, ExxonMobil has gotten clearance for SCAQMD not to run the CO (carbon monoxide) boiler, a pollution device that can limit emissions of HCN (hydrogen cyanide) to the extent that the FCCU’s (fluid catalytic cracking unit’s) regenerator generates HCN.” 

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is investigating the explosion. The lawsuit states, “That investigation has disclosed that because of the explosion, an 80,000 pound piece of debris landed on temporary scaffolding, which was around a pressurized tank called a ‘settler tank,’ containing tens of thousands of pounds of modified hydrofluoric acid, an extremely toxic substance, which if released, could lead to injury and deaths of hundreds of thousands of community members around the refinery.”

Vanessa Sutherland, the Chemical Safety Board Chair, explains, "After [hydrofluoric] acid vaporizes it condenses into small droplets that form a dense low-lying cloud that will travel along the ground for several miles and can cause severe damage to the respiratory system, skin, and bones of those who are exposed, potentially resulting in death.” 

PBF Energy, not a party in the suit, is looking to purchase the refinery from ExxonMobil under conditions that the refinery be repaired before the close of the deal.

Agencies such as the SCAQMD, as well as ExxonMobil, must be held accountable, even if it means civilian activist groups must place legal or legislative pressure to ensure safety of the community at large. ExxonMobil has been subject to multiple suits over the past decades for its handling of refineries throughout the country.
(Beth Cone Kramer is a successful Los Angeles writer and a columnist for CityWatch.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


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