City of Torrance acknowledges gaps in response to ExxonMobil refinery explosion

Repost from The Daily Breeze
[Editor: See also in the Los Angeles Times: Too much pressure in equipment triggered Torrance refinery explosion.  – RS]

Torrance acknowledges gaps in response to ExxonMobil refinery explosion

By Nick Green, Daily Breeze, 02/25/15, 7:16 PM PST
Aerial view of affected area at the Exxon/Mobil refinery in Torrance following an explosion and fire on Feb. 18, 2015. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

TORRANCE >> In response to criticism in the wake of last week’s explosion at ExxonMobil’s Torrance Refinery, city officials acknowledged this week that a new telephone alert system needs improvement.

“It shows us things we have to tweak and modify,” City Manager LeRoy Jackson said at Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting in response to complaints from the council and public alike. “We did not use all the tools in our toolbox.”

Councilman Tim Goodrich, who formerly worked for a California labor union, was perhaps most critical of ExxonMobil. He wondered whether safety was really the company’s top priority, an issue also raised by United Steelworkers Local 675, which represents workers at the plant.

“Honestly, I’m not at all surprised that happened,” Goodrich said. “How many close calls is ExxonMobil willing to have before we have one we’re really going to regret?”

ExxonMobil officials attended the meeting, but did not respond to the comments.

Municipal officials had expected a big crowd, but there were plenty of open seats in the council chambers and only a handful of people spoke. At a meeting ExxonMobil hosted Friday night, scores of residents vented their frustration.

Still, the incident has attracted the attention of state legislators. The Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee and the Environmental Quality Committee will hold a joint hearing at 6 p.m. March 5 at City Hall to address the emergency response, the refinery’s safety record and impacts to the community.

Inadequacies to the emergency response addressed Tuesday included:

  • A decision not to use the ExxonMobil emergency siren to alert the community to the explosion and subsequent ash and dust fallout because officials determined the emergency was confined to the 750-acre refinery. “We have this great siren system that wasn’t used and it probably should have been,” Councilman Mike Griffiths said.
  • A decision not to close the barriers that cordon off Crenshaw Boulevard, the closest thoroughfare to the explosion. “We had a close scrape here,” said Councilman Kurt Weideman. “The question arises in my mind why we didn’t close the barriers on Crenshaw.”
  • The ineffectiveness of a new, partially implemented Torrance Alerts automated mass telephone notification system that informs residents of what they should do in the case of an emergency or natural disaster. Mayor Pat Furey, who lives two blocks from the refinery, said it took three phone calls before the recorded alert played, while Weideman said he didn’t get one at all at his north Torrance home of 35 years.
    Councilman Geoff Rizzo said the alert’s readout on his caller ID did not convey the urgency of the situation, a sentiment echoed by Councilwoman Heidi Ashcraft, who screens all calls to her home phone.
  • A lack of education about what the public should do when hearing the siren, or as one resident put it: Should people “run like hell” or shelter at their home or office? (It’s the latter.)

“We need, along with the refinery, to do a better job of outreach and educating folks,” Deputy Fire Chief Dave Dumais said Wednesday.

Fire Chief William Racowschi said officials would use the incident as a “baseline” to incorporate what they learned into improving the largely untested mass notification system and other elements of the response.

“We learned a lot and, thank God, it was a localized event that didn’t cause a whole lot of destruction and death,” he said Wednesday.

Note: This version has been changed from the original to reflect Tim Goodrich’s status as a former, not current, worker for a labor union.