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ExxonMobil fails to respond to federal subpoenas for information about Torrance refinery blast

ExxonMobil has failed to respond to subpoenas from federal investigators probing the February blast at its Torrance refinery, prompting a call to the Justice Department in an effort to compel the oil company’s cooperation, South Bay Rep. Ted Lieu said Friday.

Lieu, D-Torrance, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, co-signed a letter Friday to ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex W. Tillerson criticizing the company for its “pushback” against state and federal investigations underway by Cal/OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

ExxonMobil has appealed 19 citations issued by Cal/OSHA, including a half-dozen classified as willful because the company failed to fix a flammable vapor leak it knew could lead to a life-threatening explosion — and did.

“We are naturally left wondering what your company believes failed and caused the explosion,” the letter reads.

“We have also learned that ExxonMobil has declined to fulfill CSB’s voluntary document requests and subsequent subpoenas as part of their investigation,” the letter added. “Given the cause of the explosion, the failure of the Torrance refinery’s process safety management, and CSB’s belief that the subpoenaed information is highly relevant to its root-cause investigation, we find ExxonMobil’s position highly untenable.

“While we appreciated your company’s initial willingness to work with local and federal authorities immediately following the explosion, we view your recent actions as deeply concerning. These actions undermine public trust in ExxonMobil and the safety of your Torrance refinery.”

• Read the complete letter

The thundering explosion on Feb. 18 shook the city, blanketed some neighborhoods with a thick dust and sent Southern California gas prices skyrocketing because gasoline production was severely curtailed.

ExxonMobil is trying to get regulatory permission to use an old piece of equipment to crank up refining again on a larger scale.

But the hearing board of the South Coast Air Quality District on Friday postponed yet again a Thursday hearing in Diamond Bar that could have allowed ExxonMobil to do that. No reason was given and the meeting has not yet been rescheduled.

Lieu, a former Torrance councilman, called ExxonMobil’s reasoning for not responding to the Chemical Board’s requests for information “ridiculous” and the “stonewalling” as “very troubling.”
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The CSB had sought information about risk assessments for the source of the leak that caused the explosion, the letter said.

But in a written response, ExxonMobil’s attorney characterized the requests as “overbroad, unduly burdensome and not reasonably related to the CSB’s investigation.”

“I find it completely unacceptable that ExxonMobil is not answering questions asked by the Chemical Safety Board through subpoenas with which they have to comply,” Lieu said. “The Chemical Safety Board has now contacted the Department of Justice to ask that these subpoenas be enforced.”

The Los Angeles News Group was unable to obtain a copy of the subpoenas because they could become part of a lawsuit if ExxonMobil continues to obstruct the investigation.

However, the news organization learned that ExxonMobil failed to respond to a document request from the federal agency regarding the risk assessments in March and another in April.

Three subsequent subpoenas in June, July and August also were either ignored or dismissed by the company as burdensome.

“We have to be really concerned about what we’re learning about a lack of cooperation and a lack of responding to the subpoenas,” Waters said in a telephone interview Friday. “Enough scares have taken place where ExxonMobil has to take this seriously.”

Waters said she would insist that a town hall meeting take place led by a high-ranking ExxonMobil representative to explain to the community what steps the company was taking to ensure plant safety.

The letter also called for the elimination of potentially deadly modified hydrofluoric acid at the refinery in the wake of an accidental release of the vapor Sunday. Cal/OSHA said this week it is investigating the acid leak, which the Torrance Fire Department called a “significant incident.”

Most U.S. refineries do not use the extremely toxic chemical and Lieu and Waters said ExxonMobil should join the majority, while employing greater transparency.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Well, this latest leak was not really significant, nobody was in danger,” Waters said. “A leak is a leak and it could have been bigger, it could happen again and the community needs to know what they’re doing about upkeep, renovations, retrofitting — all of that.”

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