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Eyewitness News exclusive investigation: State cites ExxonMobil for refinery emissions

October 17, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Eyewitness News exclusive investigation: ExxonMobil has been cited for air quality violations during the recent shutdown of a Torrance refinery that contributed to soaring gas prices.

Eyewitness News has learned that the shutdown of the ExxonMobil refinery that helped launch record gas prices at the pump also triggered an overload of volatile gases that the plant could not handle.

According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the pressurized gases were released into the open air.

"From our investigation so far it does appear that this was a result of the chain of events that took place following the power outage and the shutdown of the refinery, and then subsequently the restart of the refinery," said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the AQMD.

AQMD has now issued a violation notice to the Torrance plant for two offenses: The excess emissions from a tank, and a failure to report the gas release.

In fact inspectors don't know how much explosive gas was leaked, or when the leake started. AQMD only learned of the problem four days after the October 1 shutdown.

"We were not able to take samples of the air and analyze them at the time that residents were reporting a foul odor," said Atwood.

Penalties to the plant are still undetermined. The initial mishap, along with other supply problems in the Bay Area, helped rocket gasoline prices to record highs earlier this month. Prices are coming down much more slowly.

Industry analysts say the lag is due in part to the need for butane in Arizona, which must be transported to California by rail. It is a key component of winter-grade gasoline, which was authorized for early release by Governor Brown to bring prices down.

"I'm sure they were hoarding up rail cars, sort of the Monday morning afterwards, so it looks like it's taking about a week," said energy consultant David Hackett.

At one point some independent gas stations were selling $6 gas. Now they can obtain cheaper fuel due to the changeover.

Meantime, there are still questions about why the Exxon refinery shut down in the first place. Exxon says there was a disruption in power. Yet Southern California Edison says there was barely blip in the electrical flow that day. AQMD says it is not holding Exxon responsible for the shutdown. At the same time, the agency told Eyewitness News that the plant has never before had to halt all processes because of any similar power incident.

Wednesday, ExxonMobil sent a statement to Eyewitness News: "On October 16, 2012, the ExxonMobil Torrance Refinery received a Notice of Violation from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) related to an event on October 4. The cause is still under investigation, and we are working cooperatively with SCAQMD. We apologize for any inconvenience that this event has caused the community."


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