This is a report by name friend and colleague, Attorney Sherry Lear, a founder and leader of Miss Revolutionaries
REPORT ON TORRANCE TOWN HALL MEETING ON 2/20/2015
ExxonMobil held a “Town Hall” at 6 p.m. on 2/20/2015 in response to public concerns about the explosion at the ExxonMobil Torrance refinery on 2/18/2015. The meeting was held at Torrance Cultural Arts Center and was attended by several hundred people. From what I could see on the sign-in sheet, the attendees were overwhelmingly residents. There was also media coverage from several news stations (NBC4 and KTLA) along with the Daily Breeze, Reuters and I expect the L.A. Times. The entire meeting was filmed by ExxonMobil.
In addition to media, several politicians either made appearances or had representatives. Notably, no one from the City of Torrance Council or Mayor’s office identified themselves as such. (Not to say no one was there but they did not speak publicly.) Assemblyman Tom Hadley (and his wife) were seated prominently in the front and he was the first to speak during public comments. (Hadley is a Republican who beat out Al Muratsuchi last November.) He didn’t take any sort of stance against ExxonMobil or what happened (from his comments, he seems very pro-business) but did indicate that there has been some “confusion” about how to find information when an event happens and that he wanted to make sure ExxonMobil will communicate with the public.
Heather Hud came from State Senator Isadore Hall’s office. (Notably, he just won a special election and has already announced that he will run for Janice Hahn’s seat since she is stepping down in 2016.) Heather gave her phone number (310) 412-0393 and indicated that Hall is working with State Senator Kevin DeLeon to follow up on this event and that they plan to do a public hearing in Torrance. She advised audience members to call her or field representative Avelino Valencia (sp?) for help with this matter. This comment came after several residents complained that they were not able to get responses to their calls to ExxonMobil and/or SCAQMD. Joey Apadoca also spoke from Congressional Representative Ted Lieu’s office. He indicated that Lieu’s office was ready to provide assistance to anyone who needed it and noted that this was the third explosion at this refinery since 1988. (Per my husband, during one of the prior events, a woman was literally “vaporized” on Van Ness.
The main speaker for ExxonMobil was a man named Brian. I got there a few minutes late and did not get his last name. He had an English accent. He did not provide any real information. He repeated, over a dozen times, that ExxonMobil’s first concern was safety and offered an apology to the audience. He indicated that this event happened because an ESP exploded – he denies there was any fire in connection with this. ExxonMobile does not know why the explosion happened. They have an “internal investigation” team who will be looking into this but he cannot give a time line for how long that will take, other than to say it will be shorter than the investigations by governmental agencies.
Someone asked for a phone number of who is in charge of the investigation at ExxonMobil. Brian did not have the information, but did note that someone from national will be coming on next week to take over the investigation. Torrance Fire Department, CAL-OSHA and SCAQMD are also investigating. There are requests for other agencies to get involved.
After the ESP exploded, large amounts of ash were discharged into the refinery and in the neighborhood, more so to the west because of the way winds were blowing. Per ExxonMobile, the explosion resulted in what they called “catalyst dust” being deposited on people’s homes and cars. Brian said “We are committed to help you deal with this.” ExxonMobil had claims adjusters and members of its Risk Management team at the back of the meeting room to “help” audience members. Brian’s opening comments included the claim that they would “leave no stone unturned,” that Exxon wanted to address and fix the problem and ensure that this “never happens again.” Brian noted the time line: 8:50 a.m. explosion occurs, 8:55 a.m. Torrance Fire Dept. responds, 9:00 a.m. Del Amo Blvd. closed due to flaring going on and they don’t want anyone too close (flaring went on thru the night.)
Brian and Dr. Eleanor MacIntosh, an ExxonMobil employee who is a physician and occupational medical specialist who works at the refinery, claim that testing was completed from samples within 25 minutes which indicated that the “ash” was not toxic but “inert” catalyst dust. Because they declined to sound the refinery siren system. Brian claimed the discharge was “just like normal dust.” Of note, the parts of the refinery which were not damaged are still operating. They ran tests over the next 24 hours to make sure that the rest of the refinery could operate safely. They claim their priority is to fix damage in the community, not to fix the ESP.
With this limited amount of information, the meeting was opened to Public Comments:
As noted, Assemblyman Tom Hadley took the mic first. He said nothing of substance.
Jean Severance, a nearby resident who lives 2 miles west, indicated she was outside cleaning her patio when dust and debris started raining down on her. She was upset that the sirens were not sounded. This is when Brian advised that they decided not to use them because they had determined there was “no immediate hazard to health.” He did agree it was a “fair question” why this was not done.
Next, a male resident who did not give his name talked about the fact that schools (which I understand included public schools, but did not include either campus of my son’s private school) were told to “shelter in place. “ This meant they were supposed to turn off air conditioning and cover openings with visqueen/plastic and tape. The resident asked what the refineries plan was for a catastrophic event. Brian had no response other than to note that ExxonMobil needs to look at its response system.
Next, Brad Kamiso, spoke. He is a landlord with 2 acres of residential rental properties on Earl Street. He complained that it “snowed” on his property. He had done some internet research on ESPs and catalyst dust and was concerned that it included “dehydrated aluminum” which would be toxic. He demanded several times that the material be tested (at ExxonMobil’s expense) and that someone from ExxonMobil come out to clean it or else advise on the proper method of cleaning the stuff up. (It became clear at the meeting that ExxonMobil had not advised anyone how to clean this stuff up and they offered no such instructions at the meeting, only a suggestion to talk to a claims adjuster.)
At this point, Dr. Ellen was asked to step up and give her qualifications. She then claimed that the material discharged was “spent FCC catalyst” which had aluminum oxides in it but was not dehydrated aluminum. She also said it includes amorphous silica, and kaolin (a binder made from clay.) She described this as an “irritant” which could cause coughing or wheezing for asthmatics but had “no short term or long term health effects.” Dr. Ellen was extremely defensive on this point.
Another resident noted that FCC catalyst often contains “rare earth elements” and heavy metals, which are used to increase production. He asked if that was used in the ESP. The question was not answered; instead, Dr. Ellen kept repeating the answer that the “dust” tested had aluminum oxides, kaolin and amorphous silica. The commenter was not satisfied with this answer and noted that what goes in the ESP will also go out. He also asked about the insulation used and if was tested for asbestos. Brian said, yes, none was found. (Notably, it came out in later testimony that large chunks of insulation were also blown out into the neighborhood.)
Next comment was asking why local schools were not provided with Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) or even dust masks for use during an emergency or instruction to “shelter in place.” He had been advised by the principal of North Torrance High School (where his son attends and which is close to refinery) that the principal had asked for this from ExxonMobil many times and it had never been provided. He asked if ExxonMobil would be providing PPE and gas masks to local schools and residences.
Brian responded with the comment, “I get it. “ He said that money isn’t an issue here, they want to make people safe. He claimed, “We care deeply” and this is a “wake up call” for ExxonMobil. But, he offered no promises or commitment that anything would be done.
A gentleman named Kahn commented several times. He was very emotional. He claims that someone in his family lost a “baby” because of toxic exposure after this event. Brian called this a “tragedy.”
Another gentleman asked for Brian to provide the phone number and name of ExxonMobil’s lead investigator. As I noted, Brian had nothing to provide. He seemed surprised that someone was asking for this. Brian did note that “LA Hazmat,” Torrance Fire Dept., CALOSHA and the Chemical Safety Board were doing their own investigations and said that you could look those numbers up.
Steve Goldsmith offered public comment that the first phone number provided by ExxonMobil was disconnected and that he had called the second number, which promised a response within 24 hours, but this had not happened. He had been playing tennis at a local club when “fibrous flakes” (versus “regular dust”) started raining down. He asked why there had not information provided about how to clean this up as well as the massive flaring that occurred afterward and the fact it would have air quality impact. He noted that his eyes were stinging after this and the community needed to be better informed.
Joe Mendez spoke next. He commented that “globs” of insulation and catalyst dust came into his yard and that when he tried to wash it off his sidewalk, that it left stains. He wanted more information on how to clean up.
Dave Campbell next spoke from United Steel Workers. There were several USW workers present, including workers outside holding up a sign. USW has workers at this facility. He came with the Material Safety Data Sheet for “spent catalyst” on his phone. He asked if ExxonMobil would provide it. He then contradicted the claim that this is not like “earth dust.” It contains heavy metals, aromatic oils and can cause cancer with long term exposure. (At this point, Dr. Ellen got upset again and said that this is not what they found when they tested.) Dave Campbell then volunteered to have USW provide dust masks for local schools and do independent testing of dust and materials people had in their yards.
Sherry Lear (me) spoke after Dave Campbell. I identified myself as a Torrance business owner, that my husband works in Torrance literally across the street from this refinery and that my son goes to school. I complained that my son’s private school didn’t get notice to shelter in place for at least an hour (or what that meant) and that my office didn’t get a call about this event (via the phone tree) for 2 hours. (My secretary saw the flaming on her way into work.) I also asked about what materials had been discharged during the massive flaming including how much sulfur. Brian said he didn’t have that information to give to us although they had already reported it to AQMD because he didn’t expect people would be asking him questions about sulfur. He gave me no commitment on when this information would be made available.
A Lawyer from USW spoke and asked about hydrofluoric acid production at the refinery and indicated that USW would be making a public records request. He also indicated ExxonMobil needs to do a better job of public preparedness and extensive outreach.
Alicia Rivera next spoke for CBE. She indicated that workers reported very unusual strong smells for an hour before the explosion and that management decided to proceed with operations. She also talked about the USW strike and how it was to get safer worker conditions and the concern with refining of heavier and more dangerous crudes. Alicia said the Chemical Safety Board and not the AQMD need to investigate this event.
A woman from the audience volunteered that two workers who had been interviewed by NBC4 on the day of the event had been fired. Brian denied these were ExxonMobil employees (could be contracted workers.)
Carl Walter lives on Sara Drive near the refinery. He called this “fibrous dust” and was also concerned about the lack of information on toxicity. (Brian’s response was this had only happened 48 hours ago.)
Another commenter stated that ExxonMobil should be sending people out to clean up the dust. Brian made a comment, “Well, it looks like we will.”
Another commenter suggested that ExxonMobil should do public outreach to neighborhood watch programs so people can be better prepared. Brian said this was a good idea.
A female commenter noted that this refinery had 9 violations since 2010 and was fined $100K, which ExxonMobil has appealed. Brian commented that Cal OSHA did a safety review and found 2 serious violations and 12 general violations. The 2 serious violations were “closed” and the other 12 are in the process of being “closed.” Brian said “we are glad” that the violations were found and they are always looking for ways to get better and that they had “settled” the fines. He said these violations had “nothing” to do with the ESP which exploded.
Rodney Barnes lives near the refinery, had worked there as a third party contractor and also sat on the Citizen’s Advisory Panel (CAP) and suggested people join that. He had some specific questions about the ESP and said answers to these would explain what happened.
There were some other minor comments which I won’t repeat here. People in the audience asked for ExxonMobil to agree to another meeting in one month. That commitment was not made but Brian said that they would “have other meetings.”
My overall impression; this was a spin exercise. They came with as little information as possible, apologies and claims that they care about safety. What information provided was clearly intended to minimize this event. While some audience members talked about how ExxonMobil provided jobs and gave money to the community, the general mood is that people were pissed off at the lack of information and lack of response.