A powerful explosion at an oil refinery on Wednesday morning ripped apart structures and shook homes for miles around the blast site in southern Los Angeles County.
The Torrance ExxonMobil Refinery, located on W. 190th St. just south of the 405 freeway, blasted apart at 8:50 am, leading to an air quality advisory due to the heavy smoke. The explosion sent pieces of ash raining down on vehicles parked near the 750-acre refinery property, and caused what a worker described as “intense shaking.” Four minor injuries were reported.
The explosion was the equivalent of a magnitude 1.7 earthquake, according to Caltech statistics. The blast registered on a nearby seismometer operated by the Caltech/USGS Southern California Seismic Network, and the quake was only felt in the immediate vicinity.
Residents in the area were initially asked by police to remain indoors after the explosion, but that order has been lifted. The smoke advisory issued by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) was still in place hours after the incident.
About 47 firefighters responded to the refinery blast, followed by ground fire—likely fueled by gasoline—which was quickly extinguished, said Torrance officials.
California Occupational Safety and Health officials were at the site to begin their investigation. The exact cause of the explosion has yet to be determined.
Several residents described larger-than-usual flames from the plant’s towering flare stack. Flares from the stack, part of a safety relief valve system, are part of normal operations that occasionally produce a rumbling sound, like distant thunder, caused by turbulent mixing of vapors.
Fire Capt. Steve Deuel told the Associated Press that the flare system was triggered to burn off fuel that could add to the fire. He said the blast “happened in a processing facility, and the material involved was gasoline.” The incident could also have been a result of a petroleum product leak, he said.
Repairs will be needed, Deuel added, as the explosion and fire damaged a portion of the refinery. The facility remained operational during the incident, and non-impacted units continued to run.
“We can’t just shut a refinery down,” he said.
But Cal/OSHA is investigating the incident, and has ordered all operations closed at the unit until everything can be safely operated, said a Cal/OSHA spokeswoman.
Exxon Mobil spokesman Todd Spitler said when the incident occurred, refinery workers immediately activated emergency procedures.
“Our top priority is the safety and health of our employees and neighbors,” he said. “We regret this incident and will work with appropriate authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of the cause. We apologize for any inconvenience that this incident may have caused nearby residents.”
Four contractors were taken to Long Beach Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries. All other employees were accounted for, officials and police announced.
ExxonMobil also issued a statement saying “no harmful emissions have been detected” from the explosion, but the AQMD assessing air quality issued the smoke advisory as a warning.
Students and staff at 14 schools in the nearby area, including seven elementary schools, were sheltering in place, said a Torrance school district spokeswoman. Outdoor activities were limited during the day for students because of the advisory.
The refinery, where about 155,000 barrels of crude oil are processed each day, has been part of the South Bay since the 1920s.
“You could feel it; it was like a loud sonic boom,” said refinery worker Jason Hernandez. “My first reaction was, this doesn’t sound good, this doesn’t look good. Let’s get out of here.”
“First thing I thought was to call my wide, my kids, and let them know I’m safe.”
“My daughter-in-law thought it was an earthquake,” said 70-year-old Gilbert Greigo, who has lived near the refinery for about 65 years and was watching TV when the house shook. “I didn’t think it was because I didn’t feel the ground move.”
An ExxonMobil claims hotline—(844)-631-2539—has been set up for community residents who might have been impacted by Wednesday’s incident.
The blast at the refinery is just one of a string of massive explosions that occurred over several decades at oil refineries along the South Bay, some of which have been deadly.
(With reports from Los Angeles Times, NBC Los Angeles.)