Torrance residents alarmed over agreement to restart exxonmobil refinery

Regulators appear poised to sign off on a proposed agreement Saturday allowing ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery to exceed pollution limits as it resumes gasoline manufacturing, angering some residents who wonder why the agency is bothering with a public hearing at all.

Moreover, even basic questions about the refinery restart — such as when it will occur and by how much emission limits will be exceeded — remain unavailable.

ExxonMobil officials did not answer those questions sent to them via email, while South Coast Air Quality Management District officials were unavailable Thursday.

AQMD officials have indicated they will provide a calculation of the excess emissions at the hearing set for 9 a. m. to 4 p. m. Saturday at Torrance City Hall, 3031 Torrance Blvd.

The refinery has sat largely idle since the February 2015 explosion that state and federal investigators contend was caused by ExxonMobil’s deliberate failure to fix equipment for almost a decade even though the company knew it could cause a life-threatening explosion.

The blast literally rocked the community, sent plumes of industrial debris showering on neighborhoods and sent pump prices soaring statewide.

But some residents are angry that the purpose of the meeting is to discuss a mutually agreed upon stipulated order by the AQMD and ExxonMobil allowing the company to move ahead with its dirtier-than-usual start-up of refinery operations.

Doing so will violate about 10 AQMD rules designed to minimize pollution, said Torrance resident Maureen Mauk.

“This means that the community has the choice between unsafe operations (such as explosions), or excess air pollution that is harmful to people’s health, neither of which is acceptable,” she said via email. “The Hearing Board should order ExxonMobil to cease and desist startup.

“Furthermore, a citizens petition identified additional deficiencies, including lack of transparency on emissions calculations, which could underestimate them,” Mauk wrote.

In a largely redacted “Torrance Refinery Restart Emissions Minimization Plan” ExxonMobil said submitted to the AQMD, the company said it needs to restart pollution-control equipment at the end of a 120-hour start-up sequence rather than at the beginning to “avoid the possibility of a fire and explosion.”

The five-member hearing board will listen to evidence and receive public testimony before making a decision. But to some residents, that sounds like it’s a done deal with no input from the surrounding community.

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ExxonMobil needs to demonstrate the refinery can operate flawlessly before a previously announced $530 million sale of the property can close.

Jim Tarr, owner of Rolling Hills Estates-based Stone Lions Environmental Corp.., which evaluates toxic exposure problems from refineries and similar facilities, said the lack of information provided to the public makes it virtually impossible to evaluate the excess emissions from the refinery during the start-up.

He called the hearing a “farce.”

“It is totally inappropriate, totally irresponsible to do that without first talking to residents of the community,” he said. “The start-up as designed by ExxonMobil and, apparently by the staff of the AQMD, is going to have a negative health impact on the people in the community. They have little or no concern for the health of the people who live around that refinery.”

Tarr said he was most concerned about the amount of hydrogen cyanide — the same poison the Nazis used to kill people in gas chambers during World War II — that will be released during the start-up. That issue isn’t even mentioned in the proposed order, he noted.

But the order does offer a clue why AQMD appears willing to bend to ExxonMobil’s demands before hearing from local residents.

If ExxonMobil is not allowed to restart the refinery and exceed emission limits “it will lose approximately $1 (million) to $1.5 million a day in gross revenues,” the proposed order reads. “In addition, approximately 650 employees and 550 contractors could be laid off.”

The company has spent $161 million to repair the equipment destroyed in the blast last year and invested another $1.1 million in upgrading other equipment, AQMD officials said in the order.

ExxonMobil spokeswoman Gesuina Paras said the restart plan “enhances community safety, protects the environment, and supports the economy.”

To ensure emissions are kept as low as possible, the AQMD order said it will limit the plant’s refining output to 100,000 barrels a day as it resumes operations; the refinery is capable of producing an average of about 155,000 barrels a day, according to its website.

Twice-daily street sweeping within and outside the refinery is among other measures that will be taken to reduce pollution.

A lack of air pollution monitors near the refinery means the AQMD is unable to independently evaluate how much excess pollution the plant will generate. The agency said it will rely on ExxonMobil to provide that data within seven days of the completion of the start-up.

Because of a lack of information, neighboring residents said they plan to ask the AQMD to postpone approving the tentative agreement.

Among the requests they plan to make is the installation of air monitors on the refinery fence line, more public disclosure about past and present air quality measurements and more information provided to schools, nursing homes and hospitals where people may be particularly vulnerable to increased pollution.