ExxonMobil’s Torrance, CA, refinery is restarting after getting regulatory approval Saturday to produce emissions that violate clean air standards.
The gasoline manufacturing plant is starting up just over a year after an explosion crippled the facility.
Approval came on a 3-2 vote by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) Hearing Board after a marathon daylong hearing at City Hall attended by an overflow crowd of about 450.
ExxonMobil also will pay about $5 million in penalties for air pollution violations as a result of the February 2015 explosion and violations that could occur during the startup of the refinery, the agency said. Half the money will go toward projects to benefit neighborhoods around the refinery.
The five-member panel sifted through testimony that included lengthy presentations by district staff and ExxonMobil, more than 170 emails and nearly 30 speakers — two-thirds of them refinery workers or contractors — before making its decision.
Central to the issues behind the vote was the company’s apparent culpability in deliberately failing to fix equipment that led to the explosion, a preliminary finding from a federal investigation that has yet to formally conclude.
Board members had difficulty adopting a finding allowing ExxonMobil to resume gasoline manufacturing because of legal constraints should the company be found at fault for the blast.
But in the end, a majority of the hearing board concluded it was in the public interest to allow the refinery to resume operations using a method intended to reduce the likelihood of a fire or another explosion.
“There will be some excess emissions at certain times, but we heard testimony that air quality standards will not be significantly (exceeded),” said board Chairman Edward Camarena. “That contribution is negligible. I believe that any (air) monitoring will not see the difference because it is small.”
During the restart, the refinery will pump into the air net excess emissions amounting to 632 pounds of particulate matter, including 55 pounds of particularly hazardous fine particulate matter, 144 pounds of carbon monoxide and 337 pounds of nitrogen oxides.
Most of the pollution will occur within the first six hours because refinery pollution control equipment will not be functioning as a safety precaution.
District officials called the concern of another explosion a “justifiable’ reason for the dirtier-than-normal restart.
“We have not found any significant health impacts associated with the excess emissions,” said Mohsen Nazemi, AQMD’s deputy executive officer for the Office of Engineering and Compliance. “This is very comparable to other start-ups.”
The restart will occur from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., when schools are not open and children could be exposed to excess pollution.
Residents also will end up notified at least 48 hours before the restart occurs via the Torrance Alerts system.