This week, three unplanned flaring incidents occurred at two refineries in Wilmington. The Tesoro refinery was responsible for first two flaring events and the Valero refinery was responsible for the third. The most notable and recent flaring event happened on Wednesday, June 28, at the Valero refinery around 10:30 a.m. when a huge red and orange flame was noticed by various community members. It was followed by grey smoke which hovered over the South Bay and Harbor Area.
“The smoke carried all the way to Torrance,” said Silvia Yescas DelaPena in a comment on the Wilmington Wire’s Facebook page.
All flaring incidents were unplanned as a result of “process upset,” explained Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). Flaring burns off flammable gases when plant equipment is over-pressured. Flare operators are required to notify AQMD of unplanned flare events within one hour of the start of the event.
The agency received 22 complaints about the smoke to the 1-800-CUT-SMOG line. During the Valero flaring event, refinery workers and eight AQMD inspectors, who were there by coincidence, were evacuated at about 10:30 a.m. and then returned around 1:00 p.m., said Atwood.
Atwood told the Wilmington Wire that the exact cause was under investigation but the Daily Breeze reported that, “the flaring was triggered after a compressor went down in the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking unit, a critical piece of equipment that refines crude oil into gasoline.”
The other two flaring incidents that occurred at the nearby Tesoro refinery were triggered by Tesoro’s Sulfur Recovery Plant. The event began Tuesday, June 27, at 10:25 a.m. and did not end until 2:15 p.m., almost four hours later. It then restarted at 12:00 a.m., Wednesday, June 28, and ended at 11:59 a.m., lasting another ten hours. This means in total approximately 18 hours of flaring occurred within less than a 36-hour span.
This also means that the two flaring incidents on Wednesday, June 28 at the Valero Refinery and at the Tesoro Refinery happened concurrently.
“In terms of flaring that happened on Tuesday, June 27, and continued until today [Wednesday, June 28] it was reported [Tesoro is ] purging two miles of pipelines that contain refinery gas that was under repair for a leaking line,” said Atwood.
Between the two Tesoro refinery flaring incidents, an estimated 1 million pounds of sulfur dioxides commonly referred to as SOx were emitted into the air. This type of gas is known to be extremely harmful to human health and the environment, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Flaring from [the Sulfur Recovery Plant] means a lot of sulfur dioxide, which can be particularly bad if you have asthma,” said Communities for a Better Environment scientist and engineer, Julia May. “People should report flaring to 1-800-CUT-SMOG, because the Air District’s regulations require minimizing flaring, and EPA’s new data found that VOC emissions are ten times higher than they previously thought.”
Emissions released during the Valero flaring incident remains unknown and are still under investigation.
AQMD is holding a public hearing on Friday, July 7, at their headquarters in Diamond Bar. Environmentalist are encouraging community members to attend and testify in favor of adopting a flare regulation and strengthening amendments.
Currently there is no penalty when refineries release high numbers of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emissions into the air.
VOCs have several negative effects to human health including irritation to eyes, nose and throat, nausea, damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system and some VOCs are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans, as identified by the EPA.
Presently, flaring data is not available online and this data requires a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request in order to attain. The public is also not notified of these incidents unless they are signed up to receive notifications from AQMD, which refineries have up to 30 days to report a flaring incident that exceeds daily limits of gas released in the air listed in the AQMD Rule 1118.
“We need to make sure stronger flare regulations are adopted, including a regulation update at the Air District July 7th meeting,” said May.