Appeals Court Rules that Exxon Mobil Must Produce Documents on 2015 Explosion

Statement from Chemical Safety Board’s Interim Executive Authority Dr. Kristen Kulinowski

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday ruled that Exxon Mobil Oil Corp. must produce information to the CSB related to a tank filled with hydrofluoric acid at the site of a 2015 oil refinery explosion in Torrance, California.

On Feb. 18, 2015, an explosion in the fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) unit shook the surrounding area with the force of a 1.7 magnitude earthquake and propelled a 40-ton piece of debris about 100 feet where it landed within five feet of a tank containing thousands of gallons of modified hydrofluoric acid.  Hydrofluoric acid is a highly corrosive liquid that dissolves glass. Breathing it can cause lung damage and skin contact can cause severe burns and death.  The CSB issued subpoenas for information regarding the contents of the tank, siting hazards, and related safety concerns.  Exxon refused to provide this information, and a lower Court had ruled that the information was not sufficiently relevant to the CSB’s investigation.

The Appeals Court agreed with the Board’s position that the subpoenas related to the modified hydrofluoric acid tank were relevant and within the Board’s authority because “the risks of … an accidental release of modified hydrofluoric acid were among the ‘facts, conditions, and circumstances’” of the February 15, 2015, explosion:

The Board is not limited to the “facts, conditions, and circumstances” that caused the accidental release. The Board should look as well to the effects and the potential harm, were a similar incident to occur.

The presence of two tanks full of toxic chemicals on the site of the explosion, very close to where debris from that explosion landed, is among the “circumstances” of the explosion.

The CSB is hopeful that Exxon will cooperate in providing information on the HF tanks to the CSB as promptly as possible, just as it has cooperated in the past.  With this information, the CSB will be able to complete a critical part of its investigation into the Torrance refinery explosion that has been stalled due to litigation.

I would like to recognize the CSB legal team’s expertise and persistence in pursuing the matter, and to thank the attorneys at the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice for their excellent representation of the CSB. I would also like to thank the Attorney General of California and the South Coast Air Quality Management District for filing an Amicus brief with the Court in support of the CSB.

The case is The case is United States v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 9th Cir., No. 18-55481, 12/9/19 and is available at http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2019/12/09/18-55481.pdf

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