Sunday, February 22, 2015

ExxonMobil's Ash Wednesday: Questions and Concerns

It was Wednesday February 18, and within minutes of waking up, the walls of my apartment jolted briefly. Even the windows rattled.

At first, I though that someone had slammed their door really hard in the apartment rooms below me, or the garage door to the complex had closed abruptly and cause the whole building to shake.

After leaving the house thirty minutes later, I noticed white and brown flakes on the ground. After parking, I noticed another gentleman with a feather duster wiping off the flakes from his car.

What was going?

Another resident informed me at a local coffee shop that there was an explosion at the ExxonMobil refinery. That must have been one big explosion. All of the white and brown flakes were ash from the refinery.

Coincidentally, the ExxonMobil explosion took place on Ash Wednesday. In addition to the ash on the ground, I saw a number of people with ash crosses smeared on their foreheads. While the Catholic holiday commemorates the fall of men: "Ashes to ashes; dust to dust", no one was killed although four were harmed following the incident.

So, I was not worried about the explosion. Widespread advisories are nothing new to Los Angeles County. When massive wildfires were raging throughout the Inland Empire seven years ago, Los Angeles County issued advisories to local schools to keep their children indoors. The heavy smog and heat did drift over the South Bay, but no one was affected.

ExxonMobil has dealt with similar explosions in the past. I remember living in the LA Harbor Gateway many years ago, and the explosion at the refinery was so great, we could feel it that far away.

I do not live in fear every day worrying about the refinery blowing  up. In fact, the Torrance Fire Department issued three robocalls cautioning residents to remain indoors early in the day, then announcing about three hours later that they could go outside, and that nothing toxic had been emitted into the air.

In expected fashion, ExxonMobil hosted a Town Hall for Torrance residents to ask questions and share their concerns. According to the report from the Daily Breeze, attendees were deeply unhappy as well as unnerved:

ExxonMobil officials were slammed Friday evening at a packed town hall meeting for the dearth of information relayed to the community in the wake of Wednesday’s explosion at its Torrance refinery.

The title editorialized the heated concern of respondents, too:

Residents roast ExxonMobil officials over response and lack of information after refinery blast

"Roast"? Why were residents upset? They did not hear the refinery siren, and wondered why there was so little information released. One of the company representatives explained:

Refinery manager Brian Ablett, who took over the position about three months ago, pointed the finger of blame at municipal officials.

 “The communication is generally not from us, it’s from the city,” he said, adding that ExxonMobil’s much-vaunted warning siren — that was not activated Wednesday — also is not operated by the company. “It’s the city’s response system, it’s not ours.”

That explanation did not go over well.

“I’ve counted on that warning for 53 years,” said resident Jean Severance, who lives a couple of miles from the refinery. “What happened?

To repeat, I received a robocall from the Torrance Fire Department through the Torrance Police Dispatch office. I affirmed the source of this call by calling the emergency number which appeared on my cellphone screen.

The article continued:

Refinery work crews have yet to even start assessing the extent of the damage to the refinery and, in particular, the more than 100-foot-tall pollution-control system ripped apart during the blast, he said.

 Indeed, Ablett either could not or would not answer several basic questions about the incident, including the amount of dust and debris the explosion spewed on the community and how people should safely clean it up. He referred those inquiries to a group of claims representatives he said were ready to talk individually to those in attendance at the end of the roughly 90-minute meeting.

While the explosion is disconcerting and the long-term consequences of the ash should arouse questions, I am not concerned about the particles in the air, nor do I embrace the argument that this oil company is looking for an easy means for raising gas prices. One member of the audience actually declared this wild claim.

My bigger concerns about what may arise from this explosion: local green activists will not let this crisis "go to waste" and start demanding the decommission and removal of the refinery. There is a heightened fear of sudden and freak accidents in our culture today, and media hype has added to this hypervigilance. Transparency is a necessity, and the decision not to release the siren warning is unfortunate, but will these rising concerns lead to long-term attacks on the industry in the South Bay, yet without providing the adequate reforms for better safety in the future?

Exxon Mobil hosted a town hall meeting in the wake of the explosion at their Torrance refinery.  Brad Commiso challenges refinery manager Brian Ablett on the company's response to the incident and after effects.
Friday, February 20, 2015, Torrance, CA. 
Photo by Steve McCrank/Staff Photographer
(For instruction purposes only, Steve McCrank of the Daily Breeze)
Assemblyman David Hadley seated on the Left, with  Brian Commisso
speaking to an ExxonMobil manager
One more thing: the media bias of the Daily Breeze against Assemblyman Hadley was on full display once again. The same day of the explosion, I received an email from the Assemblyman detailing the ExxonMobil town hall, which he did not host but did attend.

He is in one of the photos, and yet the paper did not bother to report that the district assemblyman was present in the audience? Unacceptable.

Hopefully, ExxonMobil leaders will rectify the mistakes which caused the explosion and hampered immediate communication with the city, and the only dust left will be the purported hype which makes a mountain out of an ash heap.

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