Exxon Mobil California refinery faces more delays after acid leak

The ramp up of Exxon Mobil Corp.’s large Torrance, California refinery is being pushed back again after an acid leak and ongoing issues in negotiations between the oil giant and regulators.

A pair of California Democrats in the House of Representatives, Ted Lieu and Maxine Waters, wrote to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board on Wednesday asking for the Sept. 6 acid leak to be included into the broader investigation of Exxon Mobil’s operations as the refinery. Lieu and Waters noted it appeared Exxon Mobil failed to follow proper protocols with the Torrance Fire Department on Sept. 6, adding that the department called it a “significant incident.” They also said Exxon Mobil has not responded to federal subpoenas.

Consideration of the refinery ramp up was scheduled for today, but the South Coast Air Quality Management District opted to delay the matter for the third time with no new date set yet. So gasoline prices in California are expected to remain among the nation’s highest for the foreseeable future.

Exxon Mobil was hoping to increase gasoline production as soon as late September after the refinery was damaged in an explosion on Feb. 18. Exxon filed an application in mid-August to restart an old piece of equipment, called an electrostatic precipitator, or ESP, while equipment damaged in the blast is still being repaired. The refinery is currently operating at 20 percent capacity.

Exxon Mobil also is being cited and fined $560,000 for workplace safety and health violations following a probe into the explosion at the Los Angeles-area refinery. The blast caused a fire and shot out debris and ash that fell on lawns and homes in the surrounding community. Four contractors were hospitalized with minor injuries.

On Sept. 10, The Daily Breeze newspaper in Torrance first reported the small leak of potentially deadly modified hydrofluoric acid last week that led to additional regulatory concerns, although no one was hurt.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District would only say that the hearing today was postponed until Exxon Mobil “can agree to terms and conditions ensuring that sufficient safeguards are in place to protect the public’s health.”

Exxon Mobil is declining to elaborate on the matter except to say the company “will continue to work with all agencies on a potential restart plan, but cannot speculate on a timeline,” spokesman Todd Spitler said in an email response.

Partly because of supply shortages from the refinery outage, California has highest gasoline prices in the country behind Alaska. Retail stations in California are averaging selling regular unleaded for $3.10 a gallon on Thursday, according to GasBuddy.com survey data.

Texas averages the 10th lowest prices at the pump in the nation at $2.06 a gallon, according to GasBuddy, with the Houston area averaging $2.08 a gallon.