An ongoing investigation by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) of the February 18, 2015, explosion at the ExxonMobil Refinery in Torrance, California uncovered multiple process safety management ‘deficiencies’ that led to the accident and a serious near miss. The explosion occurred in the refinery’s electrostatic precipitator (ESP), used to control air pollution, injuring two workers and dispersing large quantities of catalyst dust up to a mile away from the facility.
The CSB found that large pieces of debris from the explosion were thrown into other units of the refinery directly surrounding the ESP. One narrowly missed a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of modified hydrofluoric acid, HF. Had the debris ruptured the tank a ‘potentially catastrophic’ release of HF would have occurred.
The CSB’s investigation is ongoing but has already identified ‘multiple process safety management deficiencies’ that contributed to the accident. ExxonMobil failed to conduct a management of change review and performed inadequate process hazard analyses. These should have identified the hazard of a ‘combustible mixture igniting in the electrostatic precipitator’ and led to effective mitigation. The CSB concluded that such failures were similar to those that contributed to the 2012 fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California. This incident led to the CSB adding process safety management reform to its list of ‘most wanted’ safety improvements.
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