In a fiery hallway exchange last night at Torrance City Hall, Congressman Ted Lieu rightfully exchanged angry words with Exxon executive Roger Conant, the Refinery Process Manager, about Exxon's refusal to respond to all subpoenas, “I am protecting the residents of Torrance."
I was there, and I caught it on video (watch below). I only got so far in filming the exchange, however, when an Exxon spokesman, believed to be Todd Spitler, put his hand in front of the camera and prevented me from filming more of the clash. True to form, the hand of Exxon has also tried cover up what really led to the February 18th Torrance refinery explosion that rocked the community and the state's gasoline market. The company has not answered 49% of subopenas issued by the government.
The argument flared right after the South Bay representative spoke in front of the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) Wednesday about Exxon’s irresponsible conduct in the refinery blast. Lieu said that he was writing legislation to ban the use of dangerous Modified Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF) that is used in the refinery -- a change that could also come from regulators who are looking at the refinery's sale. He also chastised Exxon's refusal to respond to subpoenas regarding the accident.
Tensions were running high throughout the meeting, with large groups on either side of the debate, with dozens of refinery workers -- that sources say were forced to appear -- cheering for refinery manager Brian Ablett and concerned residents and environmentalists hoping to close the refinery completely.
Ablett claimed that during the February blast, no community lives were in danger, despite the fact that an 80,000 pound piece of equipment landed just feet from a tank full of MHF, a highly toxic acid that can form low-lying deadly clouds in an explosion.
CSB member Kristen Kulinowski asked, if an 80,000 pound piece of equipment falling three stories wouldn’t breach the MHF tank – then what would?
Ablett responded: “That’s not a scenario I can imagine.”
Torrance residents are in more danger than we thought if he can’t even imagine a serious leak. But what Ablett really can’t imagine is Exxon paying $100 million to switch to a safer catalyst. Exxon wants to unload the refinery to buyer PBF Energy before it comes to that.
What occurred in Torrance is just the latest chapter of Exxon’s refusal to cooperate with Torrance residents. Exxon falsely convinced the city in 1994 that sulphuric acid was even more dangerous than MHF. It's not. The company has refused subpoenas regarding the explosion. They have resisted allowing federal investigators to interview workers on duty when the accident happened. They failed to properly notify the emergency responders.
Mayor Patrick Furey – with the name of a super-villain - defended the company, saying that it had always kept the city in the loop.
Residents must wonder who is on their side. The City Council and Mayor have allowed Exxon’s malfeasance for decades and then thanked them for their generous tax check and other charitable donations. Remember, Exxon is one of the area's largest employers. A Bhopal-like disaster would decimate both tax revenues and jobs, not to mention lives.
No wonder Exxon is selling the refinery – you can dupe some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all the time.