An explosion and fire ripped through a gasoline processing unit at an Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance, California, near Los Angeles on Wednesday, slightly injuring four workers and shattering windows of surrounding buildings, authorities said.
Investigators were trying to determine the cause of the blast, which occurred shortly before 9 a.m. PST (12 p.m. ET), but there was no evidence of foul play, according to Torrance Fire Captain Steve Deuel.
Deuel said a small ground fire following the explosion was quickly extinguished. Firefighters and refinery crews also contained a gasoline leak caused by the blast, he said.
“All personnel have been accounted for,” Exxon Mobil said in a statement. “Four contractors have been taken to Long Beach Medical Center for evaluation for minor injuries.”
Torrance Mayor Patrick Furey told local television station KNBC in an interview that people who live near the refinery should take precautions.
“The most important thing is to shelter in place, stay indoors, no outdoor activity, turn the air conditioners off, keep the windows closed,” Furey told the station.
A structure at the refinery was visibly damaged, with smoke smoldering from twisted metal, and the air near the blast site smelled of sulfur and chemicals.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District dispatched inspectors to take air samples for analysis “as quickly as possible,” said agency spokesman Sam Atwood.
The agency issued a health advisory urging children, the elderly or individuals with respiratory or heart conditions to stay indoors if they can see or smell smoke and for otherwise healthy people to avoid strenuous activity outdoors if they can see or smell smoke.
The California Department of Industrial Relations opened a probe into the blast, agency spokeswoman Julia Bernstein said. The workplace safety agency issued an order forbidding Exxon Mobil from operating the 100,000-barrel-per-day fluid catalytic cracker – a central gasoline-producing unit – until the investigation is complete, Bernstein said.
The department said the shutdown of the unit could last up to six months.
The refinery has a capacity of 155,000 barrels per day, according to Exxon Mobil.
Gasoline in Los Angeles surged to the highest level in about 18 months after the explosion on fears that local supply will tighten in the weeks ahead. The surge could translate to higher pump prices just as Californians and other U.S. motorists are benefiting from the slump in crude oil prices.
The fluid catalytic cracker is the facility’s main gasoline producing unit. Tesoro Corp recently shut its nearby 240,000-barrel-per-day refinery in Martinez after United Steelworkers union members walked out.
The two events sent February deliveries of California gasoline, known as CARBOB, as high as 40 cents above futures.
On the New York Stock Exchange, Tesoro shares rose 5 percent to close at $87.09. The company has three California refineries and may benefit from the incident. Exxon Mobil’s shares closed down 2.2 percent at $91.01 on the NYSE.
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SOURCE: Reuters, Nichola Groom