The explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance last February could have been avoided. It was the negligence of administrators who ignored problems that led to the blast. Fortunately, the incident only caused injuries, but the smoke from the accident choked local residents and left the air in the area even more polluted.
Last Thursday state regulators released their findings on the incident, noting 19 workplace health and safety violations. Eighteen were classified as serious since they could have led to a worker’s death. Half a dozen of these serious violations were also considered willful, because the company took no action to remedy known hazardous conditions at the refinery and intentionally failed to comply with state safety standards.
The report indicates a deliberate decision not to repair a unit that had been working improperly for nine years, according to regulators, making it impossible to measure the pressure in a catalytic cracker unit that ultimately exploded. The incident injured four workers, and hurled debris and contamination into a populated area of Torrance where there are 14 schools.
The fine for such irresponsibility is the ridiculous sum of $566,000, for a corporation that posted profits of $4.9 billion in the first quarter of 2015. This is the maximum fine authorized under law in such cases. Such a low amount represents just another cost of doing business for the oil company—nothing its executives will lose any sleep over.
The problem is the lack of teeth in the sanctions doled out to discourage willful noncompliance with safety standards, such as the absence of active rather than passive monitoring, as is currently the case. In 2007, the authorities discovered the problem that caused the blast in 2015, and just after the incident, they returned to the plant. It is as if the regulators were reappearing to conduct the autopsy, when they had everything they needed to prevent the death.
In Sacramento, the pollution caused by refineries like the one in Torrance is being discussed. Addressing that problem is a good thing, but lawmakers need to reform the regulations governing those plants so they are subject to real oversight, and violations of safety standards receive sanctions that set an example to encourage compliance. That is the least the refinery’s neighbors deserve.