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March 01, 2004

Mobil's Torrance Refinery

Yesterday I saw one of the biggest flares ever at Mobil's Torrance Refinery, right around the corner from my house. It occured yesterday afternoon around 3pm.

It was tremendously smoky and the flames were a very hot orange. It looked a lot darker than the orange I associate with the burning of gasoline but the smoke was so thick I kept convincing myself that it was gasoline. I couldn't smell anything but I was curious as to what it was and how much. It's always fascinating to me that there are tons of things in the air. So I gave them a call this morning to find out their story.

The woman answering my question said that the refinery was starting up some units to increase production and they had to flare while the units were warming up. I think she said something about 140 degrees. So I asked if they were burning gasoline, which is what I suspected because of the thick black smoke. She said it was 'mostly hydrogen' then hung up.

I may not be a chemical engineer, but I wasn't born yesterday. You don't get thick black smoke when you burn hydrogen. There was a whole lot of something else in that smoke.

The year before last, I was building a system for Toyota which is immediately east of the refinery. Toyota has an environmental warning process that all employees should be aware of, so the refinery will notify them if something hairy is going down. There have been no emergencies in my experience either at Toyota or at the refinery, so I wasn't surprsed that they would have a hotline. I am also not surprised that I couldn't get any specifics about what was flared and how much. The refinery can't get away with murder, but it's very likely that they are getting away with assault.

Who polices flares? Nobody apparently.

I know that the SCQAMD once had a program to enter air pollution into a cost accounting scheme and it resulted in a lot cleaner air. Their website looks rather dead, which is no surprise since our whole state is broke. Still, I think it has always been the responsibility of citizens to collect local information and declare it publicly. Now that the blogosphere exists, the tools are at our disposal.

I dig heavy industry. I think there's a natural attraction to it since I'm a soft-handed white collar kind of bit counter. I like the huge machines and the fat red buttons, the yellow striped zones on the floor and the blare of safety horns. But I've also gotten sick working in a chemical plant and I think the public could be better served by better access to compliance and monitoring tools.

So I poked around and found this information about air pollution. I think I've found a new hobby.

Posted by mbowen at March 1, 2004 05:04 PM

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Ive worked in refineries all around the US and the flares are an emergency bypass system set up for any shut-downs of start-up while the systems are being started etc. Anything they make can be vented to these emergency device if there is a pump or motor malfunction. It could be asphalt if they make it, or motor oil or heavy fuel oil or gasoline, butane, hydrogen et al. They normally only have a pilot light to touch off during normal operations. The flares also have steam injectors at the top to keep the soot and smoke at a minimum unless there is an emergency or start up situation.

You cant have these process flows just stop if a pump or motor goes out. Crude oil in a refinery is under pressure and heated within the piping to from 300 to 900 degrees. It would flash on contact with air and would present a very dangeroous situation if it was not flared and was forced to sit in a pipeline not moving it could build up pressure blow the pipe apart and then the whoe shebang would take off. Almost every pipe you see in a refinery is full of flammable product.

I have seen flares with so much coming out the top that the flare flame front was within 10 feet of the ground with very heavy product . A tad warm also.

EVery plant I have been in has cameras trained on the flares and are watched continually for smoke emissions etc. They have certain numbers of days they can provide smoke unless its a start up or shut down. Most refineries do not do a full shut down but once every 2-3 years.

Posted by: Bill at March 2, 2004 10:33 AM

Thanks Bill. I suspected as much regarding that you could flare any tank or pipe in the plant.

When I first worked in Whittier for a division of Olin, I helped work a couple pumps and valves myself. It was fascinating to me that the equipment was so expensive - I used to sit for hours reading the equipment catalogs (mostly while my FORTRAN programs were compiling). I also read a lot of OSHA and DOT manuals. My point is that I'm aware that there is always a reason for something to be in a pipe or in a tank or a reactor at a particular time, pressure and heat. So when something is flared, it's no accident. Somebody knows what's going up.

I sent of a letter to the AQMD to see if refineries are required to notify when they have a flare. Clearly if they were venting or flaring something significantly toxic, they'd have a responsibility. I have no reason to believe that Mobil would be so stupid that they would release a couple tons of chlorine or something. But I do believe that if they were over their SO2 limit for the month and some unusual situation came up where they made the decision to flare that nobody's going to be on the phone tattling.

If the rule in Southern Cal is as you characterize, smoky days vs non-smoky days then they have a lot of wiggle room to flare up whatever.

I was in Houston last summer and there was a fire and explosion at one of the plants that made STP and it was all over the news. I started looking into compliance issues, which are rather massive over at the ship channel there. The city has but one inspector to handle the monitoring for several refineries and plants. This guy was run ragged. So I'm trying to find out what the regime is here.

One of my interests is the ability to view statistical data over the web. It's what I do for a living.

Posted by: Cobb at March 2, 2004 11:03 AM